Finding Meaning in Imagery: The DEATH Card (XIII) in Street Art


It seems that it can’t be stressed enough by contemporary tarot readers: The Death (XIII) card does not usually or generally mean actual end of corporeal, physical life for the querent. It’s NOT that literal (just like how reading other works of spiritual, holy, or scriptural texts in a literal manner is always detrimental). Rather, most tarot readers would have you understand that the Death card is representative of “change,” and physical, corporeal death is simply one form of change during the life cycle that is dramatic enough to be used illustratively to represent the constant, non-static world in which we live and how we are constantly being asked to cope with our changing environments.


Let’s look at two of the most referenced definitions of the Death (XIII) card… First, from Arthur Edward Waite in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot:


“The natural transit of man to the next stage of his being either is or may be one form of his progress, but the exotic and almost unknown entrance, while still in this life, into the state of mystical death is a change in the form of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor the gate. The…explanations of the 13th card are, on the whole, better than usual, [including] rebirth, creation, destination, renewal, and the rest.” 1


P. Scott Hollander offers a bit more dramatic interpretation in her book, Tarot for Beginners:


“Death symbolizes a complete severance with the past, the ending of your life as it was. It can be interpreted as giving up old ideas, and old ways of acting. It can also be interpreted as a complete change in your life or lifestyle, a crossing over from one mode of existence to another. It also represents the end of close associations, either because you move on or others do.” 2


Corporeal death for humans is an incredibly emotional change. But the point of Death is that He (the personification of Death) is immune to such human sensibilities. Everyone has to deal with death; everyone has to confront death at some point; it is inevitable. Likewise, everyone has to deal with change (because life is not static); everyone has to confront change (because no one is immune from the variables of existence as a living organism on this planet); change is inevitable. Death, like other emotions and conditions, is invisible and perceptual (just like Love, or Constancy, or Faith, etc.), and just as with other emotions and conditions, humans can try their best to describe them (through poetry, relating one’s feelings) and they can be represented symbolically (just as Love can be represented by a heart; Charity can be represented by a can of soup on the local donation food shelf; Faith can be represented by a cross; and Death can be represented by a corpse or by a skeleton), but in truth, all these emotions and conditions are ideas—conceptually real things to which our hormones react, and to which our emotions cause us to weep uncontrollably—but things that truly are invisible in this earthly dimension.


Death is one of the main characters in Petrarch’s poem Il Trionfi from which Gertrude Moakley took her theories of where Bonifacio Bembo’s depictions of the tarot trumps came from when he created a playing deck for the Visconti-Sforza family in 15th-century Milan. 3 Petrarch wasn’t the only poet to memorialize certain affections and personified conditions; other poets of the time period also wrote idealized poetry to exemplify these conditions, or virtues, as conceived in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Tarocchi was a poem about trionfi cards consisting of 78 tercets and two sonnets which appeared in an unusual card deck of Boiardo’s, possibly used as part of a board game [a deck most possibly lost to history, although an 80-card “imagined” reproduction deck featuring the illustrations of the Italian artist Maurizio Bonora was published in 1996 in a limited edition by deck creator “Tosi”]. 4 The card deck consisted of four human passions: fear, jealousy, hope, and love. These were supplemented by 22 trionfi cards dedicated to mythological, historical, intellectual, and biblical figures. 5


Francesco Petrarca (1304 - 1374)

Matteo Maria Boiardo (1441 - 1494)


Do we treat death any differently than our ancestors did? What was death like in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (during the time period when the tarot was created)? Obviously, death was more prevalent—particularly because of disease like the plague—and more public—more involved in the course of the lives of individuals—than it is today. In many ways, we have removed as much tactility and confrontation with death as we possibly can from our experience… When a loved one dies, we have someone else—the police, the coroner, the mortician—take care of the body. We let someone else shuttle the physical representation of death away from us, truss it up (or destroy it) in order that it might be presented in a more “respectable” manner so that we—those still alive—don’t have to deal with the physical, or emotional discomforts of decomposition. Not necessarily true in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.


…This is a very big change from history. Much grander rituals have variously played a role in the “crossing over” and change that death entailed. The “variance” among death rituals often had to do with—primarily class—but also with economics, honor, practicality, or need, and every culture obviously had its own particulars.



The Triumph of Death by Taini, 14th century


Not surprisingly, the “change” that was necessary to confront had less to do with the deceased, and almost everything to do with those left behind. Emotions were not the only thing that survivors had to deal with, but the changes that were unrelentingly to occur as a result of the reduced work income, the subsequent caretaking of children, the shelter that had been granted as a condition of the position or inheritance of the deceased (before he died)…


In this respect, things were not so different from today. Many feudal arrangements provided contracts or “pensions” for the survivors of deceased land renters. Such pensions worked almost like insurance policies if arranged beforehand—surviving widows, young children, or the elderly might be granted living arrangements in the manor court or at a monastic community, and a certain amount of grain or food allotment might be provided. 6 But like all class-subsumed systems, much depended on station, bargaining power, or the advantageousness that another landholder might exert to benefit himself at another’s expense.




[1]       Waite, Arthur Edward. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition under the Veil of Diviniation. (Boston: Weiser Books, 1973) pp. 120-123.

[2]       Hollander, P. Scott. Tarot for Beginners: An Easy Guide to Understanding and Interpreting the Tarot. (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2004), p. 72

[3]       Moakley, Gertrude. The Tarot Cards: Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family, An Iconographical and Historical Study. (New York: Printing Office of The New York Public Library, 1966 [printed Ann Arbor, Michigan: Edward Brothers, Inc.]).

[4]       from: (last accessed 27 November 2015)

[5]       Pinheiro, Marília Futre, Stephen J. Harrison (eds). Fictional Traces: Receptions of the Ancient Novel, Vol. 2. (Groningen: Barkhuis Publishing, 2011), p. 85. (From an essay by Michele Rak of the Universitá di Siena entitled, “From word to image: notes on the Renaissance reception of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses.”)

[6]       Gies, Frances & Joseph. Daily Life in Medieval Times: A vivid, Detailed Account of Birth, Marriage and Death; Food, Clothing and Housing; Lover and Labor in the Middle Ages. (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), p. 182.



The gallery of pictures below are a representation of “street art,” which can include commissioned mural art, but also subversive, renegade graffiti and tagging on public structures. Sometimes this is considered effacement and is illegal. But more and more, many people consider it a viable, and sometimes highly coveted, form of high art. Range of form varies widely—street art can even be in knit form using yarn as a medium—and while gang-related marking is still a vice used to mark “territory,” several street artists have crossed the boundary from anarchist-to-social protest-to-social commentary.


The tarot, being a universal representation of the human condition and progression of virtuosity, ought to be applicable and be able to be found everywhere. Thus, following the practice of tarot enthusiast Enrique Enriquez, I’ve provided a collection of contemporary street art in which the Major Arcana image of Death (card XIII) can be seen or interpreted. Perhaps you can try to find more examples of some of the tarot Triumphs in your local environment…


(Click on any image to view larger size. In detail-mode, click on the “i” at the bottom of the screen for more information and commentary on each picture.)







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