Andrea Vitali's Essays

The World


The World card in Visconti’s Sforza Tarot (figure 1) shows Celestial Jerusalem inside a circle held by two angels. This representation conforms with the explanation of this Triumph given by the author of Sermones de Ludo, or “The World that is God the Father”. In Christian mysticism the square corresponds to the earthly world and to what is material, and the circle symbolizes divinity since it has no beginning nor end. In medieval Aristotelian cosmologic vision the image of a circle with concentric progressive circles inside represents the divine creation. There are many examples of this. We can see the Prima Causa in the so called Mantegna Tarot (figure 2). In the Romanesque church of Saint Clement at Tahull, in Catalonia, a fresco shows the Creator’s hand which, starting from the centre of the circle, passes through the external circles in a transcendental way and so creating the tangible universe.

In the Ercole I d’ Este Tarot (figure 3), as in the Dick Tarot card (figure 4) and the Rosewald Tarot card, an angel hangs over a circle where a landscape is represented as a symbol of the tangible world that God holds inside. In the Charles VI (figure 5) and Alessandro Sforza Tarot (figure 6), a woman holding a sceptre and a golden globe in her hand, symbols of command, hangs over the world image contained in a circle. It is the illustration of Glory or Fame shown in accordance with iconographic canons of that age. To represent a personage over a circle symbolizing earth, as an attribute of authority or protection, was a recurring methodology during the Renaissance. We can see this in the Florentine school image of Saint Augustine as he appears in a xylography dated 1460/1470 that is now in the Classense Library in Ravenna (figure 7).

In the anonymous Parisian Tarot card, which dates from the XVII century, there is the Goddess Fortune in her dominating position (Imperatrix Mundi) and she’s standing naked on the globe deciding its destiny (figure 8).  A sword hammered in the Earth symbolizes the negative side of the goddess, who brings misfortune as well. The object represents the same symbol of the sword we can see in the Final Judgement Christ images. In these images, a nude Christ under a large cloak sits on a rainbow with his feet on the earthly globe in the same way as  we saw Glory was represented before. The sword he holds in his mouth symbolizes the negative aspect  connected to His Judgment. We can see the Final Judgement represented in the 485 - IV code, c. 32r, at the Classense Library in Ravenna and the Judgment image in the Liber Chronicarum of 1493, in which Christ is represented with lilies spreading out of his right ear (that means Grace and Acceptance) while the sword appears in his left ear (figure 9).

In an Italian Tarot of the XVI century  - of which there are only a few cards and these are now in the Castello Sforzesco Museum in Milan (figure 10) - in the World card we can see the iconographic variation that will then become stable in the Marseille Tarot (figure 11): a young girl is portrayed inside an almond, surrounded by animal figures symbolizing the four Evangelists (Tetramorfo). It is the Anima Mundi (Soul of the World), represented in the image of a woman in the Latin manuscript Clavis Physicae compounded by Onorio of Autun in the XII century, which is now at the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris. This complex of drawings and plans represents “one of the most perfect expression of the imaginative activity of men during the XII century and at the same time the most faithful translation of the representation of the world connected to the Platonic system, or in Platonic way, as interpreted by Greeks and their apostle of the IX century, Giovanni Scoto” (M. Ch. D’Alverny,  Le Cosmos symbolique du XII siecle, in «Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Age», XX, 1953). 

In Plotinus’ and Porfirius’ thought the function to unify matter making it harmonious  is up to the Soul of the World, the demiurgical principle that is at the same time receptacle of the body of the world and of the principle that keeps the universe unite.

In the biblical tradition, the nudity of Adam and Eve “it is a symbol of a status in which everything’s shown, with no veils. For the Gnostics, as for Porfirius, nudity is symbol  of an ideal to follow: is it the nakedness of the soul that refuses the body, as dress and prison, to reach its own original status and get up to the divine roots. Symbolically, it is death to the profane world, prelude to the initiate rebirth and so it is purification. Nude is the initiate to the mysteries and nude is the soul ascending to the divine” (Laura Simonini, edited by, De Antro Nimpharum, Milan, 1996, pagg. 239-240).

Anima Mundi, in this manuscript, is represented by a young girl with two medals on both sides of her head and these medals have the images of the Sun and the Moon portrayed as a man and a woman holding a torch. The girl holds a little flag in her arms on which it is written: “Vegetabilis in arboribus, sensibilis in pecoribus, rationabilis in hominibus” (Vegetable in trees, sensible in animals, rational in human beings). On the four sides there are medals, each of them supported by three hands, representing the four elements. Qualities of each element are written on each medal. At the woman’s feet an inscription reminds the three faculties that Plato gives to men: “Rationabilitas, Concupiscibilitas et Irascibilitas” (Reasoning, desire and rage).

Abelardo will see in the Holy Ghost the World Soul, the Anima Mundi which the monks of Chartres talk about as well. Guglielmo of Conches, annotating Timeo (34 c-35 c) affirms that the soul of the world is a spirit or a natural force concerned with things, giving them movement and life. It is totally and integrally in everything, but its power acts in many different ways. It is in the middle of the Universe and gives movement to Stars, vegetation to trees and plants, sensibility to animals, reason to men. Anima Mundi, as it is represented in the World card now at the Sforzesco Museum, is in the middle of an almond, and it appears in many representations of the Virgin in Glory (figure 12 – Pinturicchio, The Virgin in Glory between Saint Gregory and Saint Benendetto, Civic Museum, San Gimignano) and of the Pantokrator Christ (figure 13 - Master from Siena, Cristo Pantokrator, XIII century, Picture Gallery of Siena).

The almond is the symbol of interiority hidden by outward appearance, therefore containing the mystery of interior lightening. The image of the Christ inside the almond means that His divine nature was hidden inside His human nature. In the World card we talked about before, there are the four Evangelists portrayed as animals (Tetramorfo), on the four sides of the almond and they are in the same way as John described them in the Apocalypse and as they are in Pantokrator Christ’s visions.

In 1565 Francesco Piscina wrote a famous essay called Discorso sopra l’ordine delle figure de Tarocchi (Speech about image order in Tarot cards). About this card he writes: “Therefore the author has put the world image between these four Saint Evangelists to teach us that the world can't live without religion of which these Saint Evangelists have written the precepts, for religion is the most important basis of peace and keeping happiness in people, and without it we couldn't save our soul, which is borne just to serve our Lord and God" (Hora la figura del mondo in mezo questi quattro Santi Evangelisti l’Autore ha posto, per insegnarci che il mondo non può star senza religione, i precetti della quale hanno scritto questi Santissimi Evangelisti, essendo ella il principal fondamento della quiete e conservatione de stati e della felicità de popoli, e senza la quale - si come gia habbiamo in molti luoghi accennato - noi non potremmo salvar l’anima nostra, nata solo per servir al Grandissimo Signore Dio Nostro) (page 22).

The Anima Mundi image came to Christianity from ancient religions. Isis was believed to be the World Soul by Macrobio (Saturnali, I, c. 20 -21), while Apuleio makes Isis talk in these terms: “I am the mother of everything in nature, owner of the elements, beginning of ages, queen of the Mani Gods, the first of celestial creatures, uniform face of Gods and Goddesses” (Metamorfosi 11, 4).

Also Venus was sometimes portrayed as World Soul, as love Goddess. Van Rijnberg in his 1947 work called Le Tarot. Histoire, Iconographie, Esoterisme quotes a Florentine motherhood dish of the XV century which is now at the Louvre Museum, representing the Triumph of Venus (page 186, 1981 ed.). The Goddess is represented completely bare in a sky inside an almond and under her on earth there are men. The artist has drawn the men all looking towards the goddess sex (figure 14). In this sense an image quoted in the book Imagini de gli dei de gli Antichi by Cartari shows us a nude Apollo as a representation of Anima Mundi, in the same way as with the Sun card.

In the alchemic text Quinta Essentia of 1574 by Leonhard Turneyesser Zum Thum, a bare woman is in the middle of numerous progressive bigger almonds totally surrounded by the rays she emanates. It is Anima Mercurij, an alchemic representation of “Quinta Essentia” o “Anima Mundi” for the alchemists symbol of the Done Work (figure 15).


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  - © All rights reserved 1999