Robert O'Neill: Early Virture Card Iconology

Virtue Cards

The Iconology from 15/16th Century

By Robert ONeill


The three Tarot trumps that represent cardinal or moral virtues (Temperance, Fortitude, Justice) will be covered in separate chapters. However, the virtues form an integral subset of the symbolic system and some general observations are in order.

In the religious art of Christianity, the virtues are typically displayed as women. This allegorical personification is traditional and dates back at least to the Psychomachia, i.e., soul battle, written by the Christian Latin poet Prudentius late in the 4th century (Nugent 2000). In many cases, the female symbols for the virtues show distinctively masculine characteristics, for example, being dressed in male battle armor.

The basic symbolic representation of the virtues appears to have been established by the 9th century (Katzenellenbogen 1939, fig. 32). Prior to this time, they weren't necessarily carrying anything and were just images of women with a label identifying them. After the 9th century, they appear with symbolic items. Justice is shown with a scale and sometimes sword and scale. In early representations, Temperance is represented with a flame in one hand and emptying a pitcher of water with other hand. Later, the familiar image of pouring water from one pitcher into another became more common. The imagery for Fortitude was the most variable. Fortitude frequently appears in armor with shield and spear. In other cases, she is breaking a column with her bare hands. The Tarot image of the woman controlling a lion is also found as the 15th century approaches.

The virtues often mentioned and illustrated as a group. For example , in the Cambio in Perugia, Prudence and Justice appear together in one panel and Fortitude and Temperance appear together in a second panel (Gomrich 1972, plate 80). The virtues often appear together in the old psalters (Davidson 1989, fig. 19). The virtues are mentioned as a group in Petrarch's epic poem in the Triumph of Chastity. When Cupid attacks Laura, "With her, and armed, was the glorious host of all the radiant virtues that were hers, hands held in hands that clasped them, two by two." By the 13th century, the cycle of the virtues and vices were incorporated into the epic representations of the last things and thus became incorporated into the apocalyptic tradition (Katzenellenbogen 1939).

Virtues Figure 1In many of the late medieval and renaissance representations, the individual virtues are shown in the four corners of an illustrated page or around the circumference of a circle (see examples in Katzenellenbogen 1939). In such cases, there is no particular order or sequence that can be assigned to the virtues and therefore no clues as to how the virtues might originally have been sequenced in the Tarot trumps.

However, in other cases, the virtues appear in a definite order. The typical order found in the late medieval and renaissance periods is: Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, Justice. This is the ordering that appears in a 1355 illustrated manuscript from Milan (Gombrich 1972).

In other cases, the virtues appear as individual rungs on the ladder of virtue, i.e., the upward path leading to sanctity. An example of this ordering can be seen in Figure 1 from a Florentine illustration of 1477

This is the same ordering of the three Tarot virtues that appears in Dummett's (1980) type B order. The same ordering is found in the so-called Tarocchi de Mantegna: 14 Temperance, 16 Fortitude, 17 Justice. Justice also appears as the dominant virtue in the Neoplatonic symbolism of the Tempio Malatestiano (Godwin 2002). This agreement as to the order of the three Tarot virtues is one of the reasons why the type B ordering is the best candidates for the original ordering of the Tarot trumps and is the ordering adopted in this series of essays.

Just as the ordering of the sequence of virtues was subject to change in later Tarot decks, so also did occultist authors debate over the missing virtue, Prudence. The solution to the puzzle appears to be very simple. Prudence isn't omitted because the Tarot trumps are not displaying the four moral virtues of Christianity but the three virtues of the Pythagorean system! According to the 'Life of Pythagoras' by Iamblicus, the soul was composed of three hierarchical levels. The lowest or animal soul was concerned with appetites and governed by the virtue of Temperance. A second part of the soul was concerned with ambition and power and was governed by the virtue of Strength or Fortitude. The highest soul was the rational soul that sought after wisdom and cultivated the virtue of Justice to balance the parts of the soul and the individual human with other humans and the universe. The three virtues are discussed in three consecutive chapters of Iamblicus which was readily available at the beginning of the 15th century.

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