Humility in Art and in the Tarot


Finding the Virtues in the Tarot is sometimes easy, and sometimes a challenge. There are three definitive Cardinal Virtues in the traditional tarot deck, (“Traditional tarot deck” is a relative term, obviously, but for purposes of historical generalization, we’ll purport that a “traditional” tarot deck looks something like the Major arcana of the Tarot de Marseille, and not unlike the Major arcana of the 20th century Rider-Waite-Smith tarot. Roll with me here, folks…no sticklers, please; it’s not our subject for the day.) The Cardinal Virtues easily found in the Major arcana are Strength, Temperance, and Justice. Prudence is rather elusive, and much conjecture has been made about where she’s actually located, if at all. (This is also not our subject of the day…)


The Theological Virtues, while not necessarily precisely labeled, can also be found in the tarot, although debate rages regarding their visibility as well. Obviously there are additional virtues of lesser rank, and of no less significance to the human condition. Many of these lesser-ranked virtues—as well as their counterparts, the vices—can be found throughout the greater deck that includes the Major and minor arcana (all 78 cards).


But where? Where?? Well, to recognize some virtues, it’s best to look for some of their symbolism and how they were depicted in art from the period (the Medieval period and the Renaissance). Coincidentally, I was just at a show recently that included artworks from those time periods—the Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (in Washington D.C.). Turns out, several of the works on display in that exhibit can be useful in our search.


How was humility depicted in the Renaissance? You probably already know, but have so internalized it that you may not recognize it at first. It’s not a gesture so very different from the thousands of little gestures that western populations have devised as a visual means of communication. When you use your hands while talking to someone else, when you greet someone, when showing surprise at some piece of news—you usually exhibit a form of hand signal or bodily movement that has become culturally representative of non-verbal communication (or that embellishes your verbal communication to emphasize your meaning). So for instance when you are talking about a subject you feel passionate about, a common hand gesture that affirms your positive feelings is a downward motion with your hand (as though to point out a fact). When you greet someone, a universal sign of greeting is to raise and show the palm of your hand face-outward (as in a wave). And, when you want to show surprise or astonishment at some piece of news, it is common to place one’s hand over one’s heart (as though to calm the racing beat that your adrenalin has produced).


Humility is not so different when it comes to non-verbal communication. People who are humble tend not to make a spectacle of themselves, and if there is no way to make themselves invisible, the body turns slightly inward, we become more quiet, we bow as if to show demure… and especially in art, the arms are crossed in front of the chest or heart as a sign of deference and humility. Aha. Note this picture from an old theatre arts instruction book. The theatre and dramatic arts used to be very structured, with emotions and dramatic reactions staged with very specific gestures. Becoming a dramatist involved learning a whole litany of movements and gestures, much like learning different steps and foot positions in ballet or dance.


Thespian gesture illustration (of abject humility)


So where in art have you seen this gesture? The exhibit at the Museum of Women in the Arts was sort of perfect to answer this question, because often Mary the Mother of God is shown in such a pose of humility.


The Virgen Annunciate, by Nardo di Cione ca. 1350

The Virgen Annunciate, by Nardo di Cione ca. 1350


Here Mary is pictured in a panel depicting the Annunciation (the visitation by the angel Gabriel to announce that she will conceive a child). Because Mary was devoted to God she is often depicted as having been interrupted from reading scripture. Although she is stunned at the news (“But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” —Luke 1:29), her devotion to God is so great that she humbles herself completely in the end (“Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” —Luke 1:38). She accepts the mission, despite its irrationality, and in signification of her utter humility and deference to such terms, she is depicted in a bowed position with both arms crossed in front of her breast.


The Dead Christ and Angels Adoration of the Infant Jesus, by Francescuccio Ghissis ca. 1360

The Dead Christ and Angels Adoration of the Infant Jesus, by Francescuccio Ghissis ca. 1360


In this next painting (ca. 1360) there are several characters in a pose of humility and gratitude. Not only is Mary expressing her humility towards her infant son, signifying his future role as savior of mankind, but a foreshadowing image depicting Jesus Christ, himself, stands above his mother making the same genuflecting pose of humility towards his mother in deference to her duty and abeyance—her waiting for and trust that the Word of God would be fulfilled. Subsequent to Christ’s sacrifice, the two angels on the upper sides of the panel make the same gesture of humility to Jesus as the redeemer of humanity and God’s creatures.


Annunciation and Three Stories from Genesis, by Lorenzo di Credi ca. 1480-85

Annunciation and Three Stories from Genesis, by Lorenzo di Credi ca. 1480-85


As Marian devotion gained more and more in popularity, so did the honor bestowed upon Mary in art. In this Annunciation painting by Lorenzo di Credi (ca. 1485), it is the angel Gabriel who shows the sign of honor and humility towards the Virgin. (Wondering why those three images from the Book of Genesis are aligned along the bottom of the main painting? It’s because the story of Christ’s birth—which begins with Mary’s acceptance of her duty to birth the Christ child—is the antithesis of the story of the expulsion from Eden. Eve was considered the downfall of mankind by her accepting of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; and Mary was the redeemer of mankind by her acceptance to bring the Christ-child into the world of men.)


Now let’s turn to our tarot deck. Where do we find this gesture of humility in the tarot? The most evident example of someone crossing their arms in front of their breast is in the Two of Swords…


Two of Swords, from the Deck of the Bastard by Seven Stars

Two of Swords, from the Deck of the Bastard by Seven Stars


I think a lot of people have a hard time with the Two of Swords. It’s very off-putting and restrictive. I mean, seriously, if you were to come across a woman sitting on a beach holding two swords like this, what would your reaction be? Even though she’s blindfolded, you don’t necessarily wanna tip-toe around her, ’cause those swords are long, and all it would take would be for her to start swinging those bad puppies around to knock your block off!


This is also a swords suit card, and a lot of people think that it ought to have some sinister meaning solely for that reason… which is why some of the standard book-definitions are so confusing. From The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by Arthur Edward Waite: conformity and the equipoise that it suggests, courage, friendship, concord in a state of arms; tenderness, affection, intimacy. From P. Scott Hollander’s Tarot for Beginners: a generally favorable card, indicating friendship and union… a mutual goal to be attained, a “qualified” friendship. Mary Greer in her book The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals additionally amends the [upright] meaning with: dangerous times, requiring courage and valor, a non-fatal duel, tension, forces in balance, pacts.


I certainly won’t contradict any of those interpretations; particularly, they have all come to have a certain degree of establishment as definition for the card, and I honor those evolutionary interpretations and even use them on occasions. But is there another way to interpret the Two of Swords? Well, there’s virtually ALWAYS another way to interpret any card in the tarot. That’s the magic of their fluidity and ability to address any question.


And what I mean is, that if we look at the bodily gesture that the woman in the Two of Swords is making, and refer it to historical precedent, the Two of Swords could completely be displaying or indicating HUMILITY.


But what kind of humility is the woman in the card exhibiting? Where is she along the spectrum of this virtue that we talked about in this blog post? Does she tend towards prideful ignorance… or towards vanity and emotional humiliation?


Here, obviously, is one of the key components of the tarot, and a hint at my own philosophy of where Prudence is revealed in the tarot… I think that this card asks those reading the deck to determine, in the course of the particular reading or session or question, to apply Prudence and determine the status or place on the spectrum where exactly humility lies.


Let’s take note: the figure’s arms, holding swords, are crossed in front of her breast and heart, seemingly barring the way to anyone seeking access to it. If we focus our lens one step outward and look at the wider picture, she is also “guarding” access to a beach where roiling water laps behind her. The sitting woman seems to want to keep us at a distance from the water and from her heart—both of which, just like the suit of Cups, metaphorically represents emotions. So is she trying to prevent herself from becoming hurt?


What if she were indeed trying to emote humility? Would it mean that instead of barring anyone from accessing her tenderness and emotions, that she were humbling herself to her emotions? This seems hard to fathom at first impression because of the swords. But humility entails placing one’s self in harm’s way; humility entails offering ourselves to the mercy of others, of placing our emotional trust in the hands of others. As we noted in the previous blog, true humility entails that charity is present as well—one has to offer one’s trust and vulnerability to others in order to be completely humble. It in fact doesn’t make much sense intellectually (swords). But humility is completely a virtue of the heart, not the head. Complete humility entails that we ignore all the warning bells and self-defense mechanisms that our brains and minds tell us to activate. So it is that this character in the Two of Swords is taking the very weapon of higher intellect (swords, again) to defend her own abject humility, indicating that if she should falter, the swords are at the ready to remove the encroaching defenses of the mind (the head) that would prevent her total commitment. In other words, what if the swords aren’t weapons barring us from accessing the beach, but rather the swords are a self-inflicting method for the character depicted in the card to maintain her own vow of humility?


We also stated in the previous blog post that humility was full of contradictions and paradoxes. What could be more true, then—as depicted in this card—that we offer our own mortality and well-being and possible hurt… by bearing and offering our emotional well-being into the hands of another person. It completely doesn’t make logical sense. We want to have others make us feel safer, feel loved and protected. But that is the paradox of humility and trust. We have to sacrifice the potential safety of our emotions and hearts in order to succeed in relation to the other… in order for relationships to succeed.


This seems like pretty elemental information—that we have to make sacrifices and make ourselves vulnerable if we want to create an intimate relationship with someone—but it is surprising how many people struggle against this elemental human concept, especially when that trust is broken from the other end of the relationship. The possible results can be seen in the very next numerologically-sequenced card of the deck: the Three of Swords. Making oneself vulnerable, of course, has the potential to have one’s heart broken and hurt.


Three of Swords, from the Deck of the Bastard by Seven Stars

Three of Swords, from the Deck of the Bastard by Seven Stars


Can you find other instances of the dramatic pose of humility in any of the cards of the tarot? It varies, I find, from deck to deck. Decks that use older artworks as the basis for their deck images tend to have more examples. I’m not sure why this is; perhaps humility is a failing virtue in our comtemporary culture. Perhaps it is an indication of the trend towards individualism; perhaps the spectrum on the scale of humility is edging towards vanity, and perhaps there is less concern over the offering of trust and vulnerability in relationship. That would seem to be a cynical response to the absence of contemporary images of humility, but it does seem worth pondering or investigating…


Here are some additionally found tarot deck images and art masterpieces depicting the posture of humility (click on thumbnails to see full image and more information):


Here is a bonus gallery of tarot deck poses with different kinds of posturing of the arms crossed in front of the chest. What do these body gestures/poses indicate to you? How do they help you interpret or reference the meaning in the specific tarot card?





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Posted in Discovering Meaning in Imagery, Reading for Virtue, Virtue Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , .

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