Angelo: I have always found your style of art to be very unique compared to other decks. It lies someplace in-between the abstract and realistic. It has an otherworldly feeling to it. You write that your inspiration is from the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones used art to express Neoplatonic ideas. You believe these Neoplatonic ideas were expressed in the origins of tarot. How so? In what ways is the development of tarot influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy?
All art that attempts to render reality actually lies between abstraction and realism. The best realistic art is not merely photographic. Even the best photographs have to take this into account. Everything in a picture must communicate and to do that it must depict its subject or the details in the subject in characteristic poses that can be read by the viewer. The lighting and angle must uncover the form. For example, a woman’s breast if looked at straight on and evenly lit will become flat and loose the sensuality of its form. Similarly, a face that is evenly lit from the front will not have a nose. This is what is wrong with many flash photos. As an artist, I am not just depicting a subject as it looks, but I am showing what I feel is characteristic about it and what is important to me about how it looks. I also choose to describe the drawing in black lines—like a woodcut. This ties it to historic conventions in printing and to antique Tarot decks.
The reason that I love Burne-Jones’s work is that what he depicts are aspects of his subje
ct that are realistic in a scientific way but that are also sensual and beautiful. He is helping us to see the underlying beauty and mystery of everyday subjects. He makes mythology real and the real mythological. This is exactly what the artists of the Renaissance were after and this is an important aspect of Neoplatonic philosophy. Instead of looking to another spiritual world for grace, and writing off the physical world as unspiritual, the Neoplatonists wanted to find the spiritual in this world—the physical world. That is the point of Ficino’s commentary on Plato’s Symposium, and this book was a best-seller in the Renaissance.
The Tarot was created by artists in the Renaissance, and like all artists at that time they were influenced by Ficino’s ideas on art. For example, it is because of Ficino’s influence that the nude was added to the Star and World cards as a symbol of spiritual purity, and that the figure of Time in early decks evolved into the more spiritual figure of the Hermit. Burne-Jones studied the works of Botticelli and Michelangelo, two 15th century Neoplatonic artists, and based his work on theirs. With this style he picked up the same mystical message that is in their work.
Angelo: Other than Burne-Jones, were there any other inspirations in the creation of the Sevenfold Mystery?
Yes, I was reinterpreting Burne-Jones in my style that is heavily based on early printing techniques, particularly the woodcuts of Albrecht Durer. I also looked at the work of other Pre-Raphaelite artists especially Walter Crane, who was Burne-Jones’s apprentice. Sometime I just looked at photographs of my subject and drew from those. I have to say though, that my biggest influence is really my own earlier work.
Angelo: In your Major Arcana you use alternative titles in some of the cards. For example, The Fool is called “Stulititia”, The Hanged Man is called “The Traitor” and The Sun is called “Apollo”. The Hermit has no title. I see a mix of Latin, Greek and traditional titles. What your goal with this? There is a deeper meaning here, please explain.
It started with Stulititia (Latin for foolishness) for the Fool, because this was Burne-Jones’s name for the figure in his drawing that I based the card on. I wanted to personify all of the trumps and give them names that are like an individual’s name but also exemplifies their character. So we don’t just have a magician but Hermes the Magician. Hermes, of course, is the god of magic and lends more meaning to the card. Latin and Greek gods and personified qualities work well for this and are connected to the original meaning of the cards. I feel that Fortuna is a more important part of the tenth trump than her wheel. Some of the cards are the opposite of alternative in that they are the original names for the card, like the Traitor, or Fire. The World, card is really the Soul of the World and she is the same as Prudence. This is an important aspect of my interpretation of the Tarot and helps us to understand the Tarot as its original creators understood it. So it was natural for me to call her Prudence. It exemplifies everything that I am expressing in this deck. The Hermit is a mystic and represents the silence of meditation. When I tried to name him I found he had no name, only silence. As you can see, the process was also intuitive. I had to ask each card what his or her name was.
Angelo: What would you say was the biggest challenge while creating the Sevenfold Mystery? Was the existing system of tarot easy to mold into what you envisioned the deck to be? Do you feel something in the current system was lacking in any way?
The biggest challenge was the time it took to make the deck. I worked on this deck slowly over ten years, but that worked in my favor. As I was working on the deck letting time pass between each drawing, I was also working on writing and research that helped me develop my theories on the Tarot. It was a natural process that my insights were incorporated into the cards. I feel that this deck is a bridge between the original decks in the Renaissance, the French decks, and the occult decks. It syntheses aspects of each, showing what is compatible and enduring.
Sometimes people misunderstand what I am after. I am not interested in the history of the Tarot for history’s sake—like, just because it is old it must be better. I am interested in history because there is a real and valuable communication going on in these images. They communicate a mystical philosophy that our Renaissance ancestors inherited from the ancient world and that they wanted to pass on to us. It is like a golden thread running through Western culture. It is this philosophy in itself that I find meaningful and valuable and I have found that at times it was lost or distorted by the occultists. When the occult ideas are in harmony with this philosophy and add to it, I am all for it. But if all the occult interpretations are adding is a complex correlation that has no real meaning except to further the reputation and finances of the occultist who came up with it, then I can do without this material.
Angelo: When I look at the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery I feel I am looking at the “real” tarot. That what I am seeing is the true meanings, the true person—the real soul of what tarot is suppose to be. In contrast, if you compare the Rider Waite Smith for Example we see the similarities, the cards match up, but on one side, the Sevenfold appears to be the soul while the Rider Waite Smith is a persona. One is “high” and one is “low.” Do you feel that what you have done is capture the “real tarot?” That the Golden Dawn was trying to reveal something through Tarot but did not fully put it out there to the public?
I find the Waite Smith Tarot very valuable. It is the first deck that I knew, the first that I used, and the most popular deck in the world. It made Tarot known around the world and I can only hope that I am contributing something as valuable.
I feel that the strength of the Waite Smith Tarot is in the intuitive art of Pamela Colman Smith. She researched historic decks and let this information work on her psyche, so that her intuition was well fed. It does not follow the teachings of the Golden Dawn closely. This was a conscious decision on Waite’s part because he did not want to publish secrets that he was sworn to protect. This, however, worked in the deck’s favor. Waite was able to let Smith do her thing on most of the cards and she was up to the task, but she did not have much time to develop the deck. She worked on it for only about six months. In his memoirs Waite mentions that he interfered with Smith on the designs of three of the trumps and this was because Smith was intuitively expressing ideas that were too close to the Golden Dawn’s teaching. I feel that the weakest aspects of the Waite Smith are the ones that are borrowed from the Golden Dawn, such as switching the places of Strength and Justice. This order breaks away from the Platonic symbolism.
By looking to the art of Burne-Jones I was actually going to the source of Smith’s style and inspiration. She worked under Burne-Jones’s direction when she was a girl working on stage sets for the Lyceum Theater, in London. Her style is firmly rooted in his. I also have the advantage of having more historic information to work with than was available a hundred years ago. And I was able to take my time and let the images come to life as my theories evolved and my intuition synthesized the information. In a way I was attempting to complete what Smith started. I am deliberately attempting to uncover the soul of the Tarot. That is why the Chariot is named Psyche and the World is named Prudence, who is the Soul of the World.
Angelo: For those who are familiar with your previous tarot deck The Alchemical Tarot. How does the Sevenfold Mystery differ from the Alchemical Tarot? Is the Sevenfold Mystery a continuation of the Alchemical or a completely different story? Is the Sevenfold Mystery built on the Alchemical in any way?
The Alchemical Tarot is based on a vision I had that showed me that the symbols on the Tarot’s trumps are interchangeable with alchemical symbols and that when that correlation is complete you can read the trumps as an alchemical text describing the Great Work of creating the Philosopher’s Stone. This is possible not because the Tarot was intended to be an alchemical text but because alchemy is one aspect of the Neoplatonic quest for enlightenment and shares common symbolism. Alchemical symbolism was popular in the Renaissance even in non-alchemical texts.
The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery is based on my research and insights into the original symbolism of the Tarot. Some of the symbolism overlaps with the Alchemical Tarot, but it also expresses Platonic mysticism. For the pips I based most of them on the symbolism that I used in the Alchemical Tarot, which is based on the suits being related to the four alchemical elements and to Pythagorean number symbolism. Unlike the Alchemical Tarot I included stylized repetitions of the suit symbols along with the Waite Smith like scenes—like the Tarot of Marseilles pips with a scene added. Also, the aces are reinterpretations of the Tarot of Marseilles aces and the Royal cards are as well, but with some alchemical elements added, such as the elemental animals on the coat of arms on each of the kings.
Angelo: Finally, what will readers get from the Sevenfold Mystery they cannot get in other decks? What does the Sevenfold Mystery do different from other decks?
I hope that using the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery will be a way of connecting with golden thread that is the underlying mysticism running through Western culture. I have also found that it works really well for doing readings on any subject—even better than the Alchemical Tarot. I have been hearing this from other readers as well. If you are a fan of my artwork or have appreciated my books, then you will definitely want to get this deck. It is the culmination of everything I have done in Tarot.
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