How to identify and Interpret the Medieval Vices in a Tarot Reading

 

The Virtues and the Vices were themes that pervaded thought and ideas throughout the Medieval and Renaissance eras. Because the tarot images burgeoned out of themes from those eras, the Virtues and Vices also infiltrated the imagery and symbolism of the tarot. Some specific playing decks were more blatant with their visualization of them—like in the 18th-century Florentine Minchiate Tarot, for example (references to this deck can be found as early as 1543—and Franco Patresi at trionfi.com has found a reference as early as the 15th century1—but a fully intact deck wasn’t discovered until the 1700s.). The Minchiate Tarot deck, however, is an abnormal deck; it has a greater number of cards (97) than a traditional taroccchi playing deck, including cards that represent the heavenly bodies (planets) and pagan ideals, and was created as a novelty to expand on the original 22 trumps. For a time in the 17th century, the expanded deck became more popular than its original. The traditional 78-card tarot deck—used to play the trick-taking game of tarocchi—uses a more subtle display of the virtues. Players of the card game during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, however, would have easily recognized them among the artwork in their game decks…

 

The Seven Virtues consist of the Cardinal Virtues and the Theological Virtues. The Cardinal Virtues consist of Justice, Temperance, Strength (or Fortitude), and Prudence. The Theological Virtues consist variously of Faith, Hope, and Charity/Love (and sometimes Chastity). There are seven Virtues altogether, and because it is easy for the human mind to look for opposites and define the world as a set of binaries, the Seven Vices were formulated as the antecedents of the Virtues (respectively): Injustice, Wrath, Inconstancy, Foolishness, Desperation, Envy, and Infidelity.

 

People often are more entertained by vice, so it may be likely that you are more familiar with the more sensationalized Seven Deadly Sins (these aren’t exactly the same as the Seven Vices, but it should be known that they developed from them—kind of depending on which Christian “father’s” writings one subscribed to): Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, and Lust. Many stories were contrived pairing each of the deadly sins with their virtuous counterparts, in order to entertain as a storytelling element, but also to show which template would win in the end (Judgement [XX] always hung heavy in the minds of mortal men). These stories were often depicted as a type of mortal combat, but the point was to imbue a sense of morality to the listener. The lesson: good should always victor over evil (even if it isn’t always human nature).

 

"Summa Vitiorum" by Peraldus

A Christian solider is seen wielding the “armor of God” in order to defeat the “seven deadly sins” and their kin (69 other monsters that depict minor vices). The doves represent the gifts of God that will help defeat the vices they face. (Summa Vitiorum or Treatise on the Vices [c.1300] by William Peraldus)

 

Personally, I don’t often work with the Vices during my tarot readings, because no one appreciates having their vices or shortcoming pointed out to them, and because it is often far more constructive to focus on positive aspects of human nature when contemplating solutions to problems (or solution to less-than-virtuous situations). If you’ve ever had a reading with me, it’s likely that we’ve explored the Virtues as goals, or as traits that can help find suitable paths to change.

 

In card spreads, just like as with the elemental suits of the deck (and their corresponding human facets of mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual), it can be useful to try to determine where specific Virtues are missing or lacking in the spread, in order to indicate an area where work or meditation on the specific Virtue might help bring some resolution to the situation. See this previous blog post for an example of how to apply the Virtue cards to a reading spread.

 

Where are these Virtues located in the tarot deck? Some of them are obvious—Justice and Strength (either card XI or VIII dependent on your deck), and Temperance (XV) each stand out by their namesakes. The others you may be surprised to discover because they aren’t so obviously named, and are sometimes hotly debated among tarot enthusiasts and historians. Here is what my research has pinpointed… Faith is represented by La Papesse/The Priestess (card II). For the logic behind this attribution, see this previous blog post. Charity has a rich visual history throughout the Middle Ages as a Woman tending or holding children—not unlike visual representations of the Madonna depicted the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. As the mother figure, the individual charged with bringing forth progeny and with raising children safely into adulthood, The Empress (card III) is the appropriate representation of this virtue. Hope can be found by linking the contemporary divinatory definition to The Star (XVII).

 

"Faith" and "Charity" as personified by artists in the 17th and 19th centuries.

What elements in these personifications of “Faith” and “Charity” can you still find in your tarot card illustrations for “The Priestess” and “The Empress” respectively? (Left: Faith with Representations of the Arts by Nicolo Barabino [c.1885]; Right: Heavenly Charity by Simon Vouet [c.1640] Musée du Louvre France) You can compare them with the cards below…

The Priestess -and- the Empress (compare)

 

That leaves the virtue of Prudence… Some tarot historians will argue with me, but my theory concludes that Prudence was meant to be the actual individual playing the game…the person holding the cards and deciding which card was the next wisest to play in the game… Therefore, Prudence is you…or me…or the person contemplating the cards (and doling out wisdom and advice from the perspective of prudential thinking. So, yeah…Prudence isn’t so visible in the deck…but actually none of the Virtues are visible entities except in creative artistic depictions. They are characteristics of the human soul—invisible but ascertainable within the people that we come across.

 

Nous Sommes à Dix

The title of this illustration from the collection of The Hague (RL 76H10: Dutch Songbook from 1675) reads “Nous sommes à dix” which translates: “We are ten.” …But there are only 9 fools depicted. Renaissance art often played with engaging the viewer as part of the artifice’s experience. Therefore, can you guess who’s inferred as the tenth fool?

 

The “trick” is, however, that Prudence’s antithesis is entirely visible in the deck—Foolishness as depicted by the ultimate trick-taking card: The Fool (0). So in this one instance, we’re shown the Vice that we must overcome to win our game hand.*

 

So where can we find the other Vices in the tarot deck? If we take a binary purview of the Vices—then they are the antithesis of the Virtues. If we are at a crossroads in choosing between Virtue or Vice, what sets us on our course towards one or the other? …To answer this question it is helpful to remember that the tarot was traditionally (and still is) a game, we look to other game pieces—or the other cards in the deck—to sway the decision one way or the other.

 

So what are the agents of change in the tarot deck? The obvious ones are Death (XIII) and the Tower (XVI). Another card we could utilize as a change agent would be the Devil (XV), because he is the antithesis of the way of Christ, correct? He’s the one always on our left shoulder trying to convince us to make the wrong decision…

 

“The Devil is about our vices–both what they are and how they affect our lives. It’s about the things that tempt us, and how we respond to those weaknesses. It’s about addiction, and how easy it is to cross that line.”2

—Brittany, author of meadowqueen.com
from her October 6, 2017 blog, “On the Devil as Liberator

 

So now we’re simply talking about how tarot cards pair themselves up. It’s a game, see? A trick-taking game…

 

[Note: Everyone has their preferred method of reading reversed cards during a tarot reading. Often it’s simply a matter of deciding your preferred method and then utilizing that reading method when cards appear in the reversed position. But a reader can also use multiple methods of reading reversed cards and apply them as appropriate to the particular situation as well. What I’m about to describe is just another element to add to your interpretation repertoire. You don’t have to change the way you read cards or read reversals. This is just an added adaptation you are welcome to consider if the situation comes up in the reading…]

 

If one of the Virtue cards come up, and the Devil (card (XV) also comes up paired or near the Virtue card, consider that the Devil card (or also the Death card or the Tower card…) turns the Virtue into its respective antithetical Vice.

 

Virtue Antithesis Vice
Justice (Gratitude) Injustice (Vainglory/Envy)
Temperance Gluttony (trad. Wrath)
Strength/Fortitude (Humility) Inconstancy (Pride)
Prudence* antithesis of … Foolishness* [card “0”]
Hope (Patience) Desperation (Wrath)
Charity Envy (Avarice/Greed)
Faith (Diligence) Infidelity (Sloth)
(Chastity) (Lust)

This is the easiest variation of interpretation, but perhaps you only want to apply it when both the Virtue and the Devil are present together and one of the cards is reversed. Perhaps you want to try applying this interpretation variation on other cards in the deck when one of the “change agent” cards is paired with it. …This is what I love about the tarot—endless variation and possibilities, restricted only by your own creativity!

 

Change Agent Cards

The Devil (XV)

Death (XIII)

The Tower (XVI)

The Wheel of Fortune (X)

 

So to provide some sample illustrations of how reading the Vices works…

This is Temperance:                                 This is Gluttony:

Temperance-vs-Gluttony

This is Faith:                                     This is Infidelity:

Faith-vs-Infidelity

This is Foolishness:                                This is Prudence:

Foolishness-vs-Prudence

 

 

NOTES:

 

[1]     See footnote number 1 on Wikipedia’s page referencing the Minchiate Tarot (last accessed 10/21/2017): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minchiate#cite_note-1

 

[2]    https://www.meadowqueen.com/blog/2017/10/6/on-the-devil-as-liberator

 

 

 

 

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

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