My Favorite Tarot Art.

The Tarot is pretty cool. Not only is it a great tool for metaphysical tinkerings and all that, but every deck is a work of art. I have always loved art, and I think that, even if the Tarot was good for nothing else, it is worth appreciating for art’s sake.

This post is almost not fair, because in fact I like the artwork in all of my decks, and in so many more that I don’t even have – and, whether I like a particular deck or not, I have nothing but respect and awe for the artist who can accomplish such a feat. I can’t help but look with fondness upon any Tarot I stumble across, no matter how lowly its place on my subjective personal hierarchy.

But while every deck is an incredible work of art, there are certain decks that, to me, are simply exceptional. I’ve selected six of my favorites for this post.

So, without further ado (and in no particular order):

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While these cards were not randomly selected for photos, it should be borne in mind that I have many, many more than three favorites in each of these decks.

The Wildwood Tarot (art by Will Worthington). The detail in these images is amazing. They depict creatures and characters in a great, sprawling, mythical forest set in prehistoric Europe. The forest itself feels alive and sentient, and the primitive humans living on its fringes seem to live in harmony with nature, with a healthy respect/fear of it. The art is not photo-realistic by any stretch, and yet it is totally convincing. This Tarot is different from any others – it is completely original.* I don’t really mind when a Tarot breaks from tradition, but if it’s going to, and I’m going to get it, it needs to be very good, and a big part of that for me is the artwork. These cards fit the bill (and then some), and when I use them, I walk through the forest in my imagination, and that’s thanks in no small part to the artist.

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My photos do not do anything in this post justice.

The Shadowscapes Tarot (art by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law). If the Wildwood glimpses into an ancient Fanghorn-type forest, the Shadowscapes crosses the divide and depicts the Otherworld, the Realm of Faerie itself. These cards are straight up fantasy, and the artwork is unbelievable. I only wish the cards were larger so I could better lose myself in them for a while. When I first wrote about these cards, I had little to say except that the artwork is stunning, and in the time since, I still can’t seem to come up with words to match it.

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The Mary-El Tarot (art by Marie White). I could take just about any one of the cards from this deck and blow it up, frame it, and hang it on the wall, and it would seem perfectly natural as an art piece, and the normies out there would be none the wiser about its esoteric source. Furthermore, I could put up several, and I doubt anyone would realize at first look that they not only came from a pack of cards, but that all came from the same artist (assuming her signature on each piece was overlooked). The artist, quite simply, displays a mastery of her craft – that is, painting (oils? I’m not sure what exactly she used, or even if she used the same paints for every card, but it’s all hand-painted nonetheless) – showing proficiency in a very broad range of styles. The art is mythic and highly symbolic, with subtle references to Tarot tradition beautifully rendered in stunning colors.

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The Mystical Tarot (art by Giuliano Costa). I haven’t yet posted anything else about this deck (although I did sneak in a photograph of the Six of Swords in my post about the suit of Swords). A review is forthcoming, so I’ll save the bulk of my gushing for that, but suffice it to say that the artwork is, well – it’s a lot of things. Beautiful, for sure, but also surreal, even trippy (yet subtly so), and sometimes just plain weird. The crazy thing is, when something weird catches my eye, I can’t help but focus on it, and at first, I’m a little put off (such weirdness includes the creepy seahorse-creature-things that pervade the suit of Cups – I’m not sure how I feel about them). Yet, the longer I gaze at the card, the less weird it becomes. I can’t really explain it. I get the sense that, while strange to me, such things are perfectly natural in the world depicted, and I find myself sucked right in. I can’t help but like it, although it certainly wouldn’t have the same entrancing effect on me if the art was poorly executed.

Now, I never get a Tarot unless the art agrees with my sense of aesthetics. However, the Mystical Tarot is one of only two decks that I bought solely because I just loved the artwork, the second deck being…

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The Sun and Moon Tarot (art by Vanessa Decort). Compared to everything else in this post, the Sun and Moon Tarot might appear very simplistic – I’ve even heard it called childish in some reviews and forums. If you think this, I have two things to say: 1) look again, because there is way more to these cards than meets the eye, and 2) since when is simple so wrong? Sometimes less is more, and even though this Tarot lacks the immaculate detailing of all the others on this list, it is easily one of my favorites in the art category. These images are like dreams. All of the things I’ve read complaints about – the small figures against large landscapes, the faceless characters – are things that I am inexplicably drawn to. Of course, we each have our own tastes, which is great, but I certainly wouldn’t write this one off as a childish or low-brow deck. It is playful, for sure, but that’s deceptive, because underneath is a Tarot with serious implications. But that’s all beside the point of this post, isn’t it, so I’ll just leave it at this: the artwork in these cards is sublime.

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The Thoth Tarot (art by Lady Frieda Harris). And so we come to the Thoth. I can’t not include it. I always enjoyed the art of the RWS, and was fascinated by that of the TdM, but the Thoth was the first Tarot with artwork that truly blew me away. You’ll notice that neither the Rider or the Marseilles is on this list. I’ve found a few RWS and TdM derivatives with artwork that transcends the originals. No re-imagining beats the Thoth in this regard. It was unprecedented when it was first published, and it set the bar pretty high for everything that followed. The crazy thing is that these “crowded” pictures are not composed of filler – every line, shape, and color is intentional, with very specific purpose, following a very intricate structure – and the fact that these cards are genuine works of art and not just a muddled hodgepodge of esoteric symbolism is nothing short of amazing.

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So those are my favorite examples of Tarot art. The runners up were the Medieval Scapini Tarot and the Aquarian Tarot. The MST was very close, but I had to cut this post off somewhere, or I’d end up just doing all of my cards. The AT, on the other hand, actually contains some of my favorite artwork. Unfortunately, some of my least favorite is in there, too, and I wanted to emphasize both the art of the individual cards and of the deck as a whole, and in my opinion, the AT does not fit the latter criteria; at least, not well enough to make the top tier.

What are your favorites? Feel free to share.

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*It’s actually a reboot of the Greenwood Tarot, now out of print and highly sought after by serious collectors. I personally think the Wildwood artwork is the more compelling of the two by a long shot (no disrespect to the Greenwood’s artist).

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Some Magicians:

HPIM0609 The Magician from the Sun and Moon Tarot is one of my all-time favorites, because the whimsical artwork portrays a musician at the beach without forsaking any of the traditional symbols of the card. He is in the presence of all four of the elements: the vast night sky above him, the ocean behind him, the sand beneath him, and the bonfire before him. The corresponding suit symbols are pictured in the air over his head. They are the centerpiece of an ethereal sigil, conjured from the smoke by the beat of his djembe. I like to imagine the star shape on the drumhead is this very same emblem. The four extremities created by the Wand and the Sword constitute four corners of a hexagram. The remaining two corners are occupied by the infinity symbol and the yin-yang symbol. The twelve zodiac signs form a perimeter around the star, and the entire thing is encircled by a serpent Ouroboros. Thus the entire cosmos with all its disparate pieces is symbolically tied up into a single, self-sustaining parcel, moved and affected by the rhythms of the Magician. A monkey observes from the foreground.

One of the reasons why I like the SaM Tarot so much is because I can so easily get lost in the soft imagery. On many cards, I can often imagine myself as part of the scene. This is especially true of the Magician. I can hear the crashing of the rolling waves and the crackling of the roaring flame. I don’t even notice the sounds of the drum at first, but it’s there, and I can’t remember it starting. It dances with and around the natural rhythm of the ocean and the sparks from the fire are moving upwards to its beats. Sometimes the Magician hums and sings along, and I am entranced.

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If the artwork from the SaM is soothing, the art of the Shadowscapes Tarot is stunning. The trees and rocks are as alive in these cards as the figures among them. This Magician is lithe and full of youth, with a golden sun tattooed on his shoulder. He balances effortlessly upon his toes, perched atop a stone pillar. He is certainly not human; his ears have an elvish point and, oh yeah, huge feathered wings extend from his bare back. His wings are poised motionless behind him, and a pair of birds have settled on them. From red ribbons are suspended the four elements, this time in the forms of a lantern, a seashell, a feather, and a leaf. Are these gifts from the friendly birds, or has the Magician been carrying them all along? He pays them no attention, at any rate, and all of his concentration is fixed on the green orb floating between his hands. On the surface, this Magician strikes me as especially Mercurial, a tricky traveller above all else; but here in his moment of tranquility, he also reminds me of the demiurge. The globe with which he plays could be an entire world, could it not?

That this Magician might not be exactly what he appears to be is suggested by the horned headpiece he wears, and his face paint is eerily clownish. There are three symbols of infinity on this card: a faint lemniscate over his head, and two tail-biting snakes, one around his waist, and one around a second green orb that is embedded in the rock near his feet.

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HPIM0611Here is a particularly non-traditional rendition of the Magician from the Mary-El Tarot. This cloaked and faceless figure looks more like the Hermit than any Magician I’ve ever seen. Perhaps this is part of the reason why I’m so drawn to him. Coming towards us from an impressionist backdrop, he walks on the surface of the water. In fact, there is no land in sight. There is almost no sense of perspective, and he may or may not be as tall as the pair of bare trees he stands between, also growing out of the waters. These trees are peculiar because they are more characteristic of duality and the High Priestess than they are of him. Clearly this Magician is less of a trickster and more of a god of wisdom. Well, maybe he is still very tricky. I certainly wouldn’t put it past him.

He presents us with the “Metatron’s Cube” or “Phoenix Egg”. The Metatron is a (non-canonical) archangel of the highest status, formerly a man named Enoch, who attained the immortal position as the Scribe of God. He is unique, because he is the only angel not bound to God’s Will. The “Egg” is a geometric pattern of overlapping circles, a very popular decorative motif in spiritual and religious traditions around the world. In the Magician’s hands it appears simultaneously to be a bunch of circles, a hexagram, and a cube. It seems to be made of light, and is supposed to represent a person’s infinite soul. The Magician hands it to you.

And of course, speaking of infinity, the lemniscate oscillates ever above his head, which is level with the sun.

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Mary-El.

Over the last two months, I went on a bit of a spree and obtained for my collection three new decks. Having spent a little bit of time getting to know each of them, I think I’ll post some of my thoughts, starting with the Mary-El Tarot (MET).

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An example of the Major Arcana, Court card, and small card – MET

These are some neat cards. Big, too.

They’re wildly nontraditional, but for me that’s part of their allure. There are so many RWS clones and copies; so many historical reproductions; so many Golden Dawn-brand esoteric decks out there; and while I love all of these things (and indeed, I am a traditionalist at heart), I also like to remember that the Tarot is not supposed to be confined to a single system or tradition (if it was, we’d never have evolved past the Marseille pips). I figured it was time to expand my horizons.

Structurally, of course, this is still a Tarot, with a Fool, 21 numbered trumps, and four suits of 14 cards each, totaling 78. The titles of all the cards are fairly traditional, too, unless something is escaping my memory. Coins are called Disks. Justice is 8 and Strength 11. Marie White, the artist and author, claims in the companion book that she drew inspiration for her cards from the Big Three (that is, the TdM, RWS, and CHT), and while I can occasionally glimpse various nods to these traditions throughout, the Mary-El is something altogether different from any of them.

It is the artwork, which is phenomenal, that breaks from tradition. The Majors are mostly reminiscent of their forbears, albeit with some great liberties taken. The Minors, though, they are something else entirely. I distinctly remember three swords in the Three of Swords card, but many of the other Minors do not explicitly depict their suit symbols. I don’t mind. In fact, I rather like it – it’s like the total opposite of pips (I like pips, too, though). The art is evocative of what the cards are supposed to mean (which, according to the book, does not always coincide with what many of us are used to in other Tarots). These are great cards for serious introspection.

Because of the divergent meanings, I would say that the book is very important reading. It’s the perfect companion to these cards. It’s written at times almost like free-form poetry, a little strange to read at some points, and yet it all makes sense in an eclectic sort of way. The blending of influences from around the world is amazing, and many of the cards actually depict specific myths or characters, although you mightn’t notice that if you don’t read the book.

The title of this deck had me scratching my head at first, thinking that the artist Marie just changed the spelling of her name to Mary for some weird reason. In the book description of the Magician, she explains that this card is supposed to depict the Metatron. Besides just being really frickin cool, this is significant because Metatron is the only archangel whose name does not end in the suffix -el, which is “what binds other angels to the will of God” (Raphael, Uriel, Michael, and Gabriel also all make appearances in this deck in the four sixes). Nothing about the name of the deck is mentioned at this point, but I figured that the reference to the -el couldn’t have been an accident.

It’s not until the Page of Wands (inspired by Joan of Arc) near the end of the book, however, that we actually learn the meaning of “Mary-El”, which is written on the Page’s banner alongside some Christian symbols for Christ, Mary, and the Holy Spirit. Mary is symbolic of divine inspiration, which means that Ms. White’s Tarot sets out from the start with a pretty tall order to fill as “divine inspiration bound to the will of God.”

I don’t claim to fully understand the will of God, but I think this Tarot does just fine.