Saint-Sernin Basilica, the Tarot of Marseilles, and Whitley Strieber

In his book about tarot cards, The Path, Whitley Strieber says there is only one bit of evidence that tarot predates the late fourteenth century, “but it is an important one”:

This is an 11th century stone sculpture at the St. Cernin Basilica near Toulouse, of the 21st card in the Major Arcana, known as the World. . . . The sculpture is complete in every detail. This is not an ‘early’ card, but a fully evolved image, suggesting that at least this one card— which contains the whole path and all the other cards in its symbolism— was already completely formed, and therefore that the whole of the path that leads to it must have been known (p. 21).

This claim interested me enough that I did what Strieber himself obviously didn’t do: I looked up the sculpture in question to see for myself. An image of the Saint-Sernin sculpture can be found here. For comparison, the Jodorowsky-Camoin World card (the one used by Strieber) can be seen here.

“Complete in every detail” is, to put it charitably, a bit of an exaggeration. Here are some of the ways the sculpture differs from the card:

  • The central figure is male (Christ), not female as in the tarot card.
  • He is fully clothed in an ankle-length robe, not naked as in the tarot card.
  • He is seated on a throne, not dancing as in the tarot card.
  • He holds a book reading “Pax vobis” (Peace be with you) and raises his other hand in benediction, rather than holding a wand and a bottle as in the tarot card.
  • He wears a halo, absent in the tarot card, marked with a cross and the letters alpha, omega, and R. (Why R? I don’t know.)
  • The mandorla (almond-shaped nimbus) is a precise geometric shape, not a wreath of leaves as in the tarot card.
  • The angel is on the right (our right, Christ’s left) and the eagle on the left; vice versa in the tarot card.

The World card and the Saint-Sernin sculpture are certainly similar images, and it’s undeniable that must be some connection between them; but it is just as undeniable that, contrary to what Strieber says, the sculpture is an “early card” (or an early version of the image found on the card) and is not “complete in every detail.” And even if it were complete, does the World really contain “the whole path and all the other cards in its symbolism”? Where are the Lovers? The Devil? The Lightning-struck Tower? The World might “include” all these in some broad conceptual sense, but in its actual iconography? Can we honestly say that this image only makes sense as part of the 22-image set we call the Major Arcana?

Actually, the Saint-Sernin sculpture belongs to a well-known type of image, called a “Christ in majesty,” which can be found in many other churches, in illuminated manuscripts, and so on. A Google image search will turn up many examples. It is a perfectly ordinary bit of Christian iconography, representing Jesus Christ as described in the fourth chapter of Revelation, and can be fully understood without reference to tarot cards. Like many other images that predate tarot — depictions of the pope and of the devil, allegories of justice, temperance, and love, etc. — it sheds some light on the origins of the tarot images but provides no evidence for the antiquity of the tarot tradition itself.

If the Saint-Sernin sculpture is so far from being a tarot card “complete in every detail,” why does Strieber so describe it? It doesn’t appear that he’s being deliberately misleading; he just neglected to check up on the claims made by his source — which, thanks to the unusual spelling Cernin, was easy for me to find. Philippe Camoin, the cardmaker who created the deck Strieber uses, wrote a short article called “Ancient Tarots” which seems no longer to be available on his website. The following is from Camoin’s article; I’ve bolded the phrases which were lifted word-for-word by Strieber.

Remarkably, one can find at the St Cernin Basilica near Toulouse a stone sculpture from the 11th century, that looks exactly like Arcanum XXI.

Strieber’s bit about it being a complete, “fully evolved image” appears to be a riff on Camoin’s ill-advised use of the word “exactly.” Camoin, in turn, cites an article in French by Alain-Jacques Bougearel, which I have not been able to find and read.

As a maker of Marseilles-style tarot cards, Camoin has a vested interest in promoting the idea that tarot originated in southern France (rather than, as most tarot historians agree, northern Italy), so his willingness to fudge the evidence a bit is at least understandable. Less understandable is Whitley Strieber’s failure to perform even the most basic fact-checking. (It took me about 15 minutes in a public library to track down a high-quality photo of the basilica sculpture; it’s not that hard.) His credulous repeating of Camoin’s claim strikes me as an uncharacteristic failure of curiosity. Wasn’t he intrigued? Didn’t he want to see this sculpture? Apparently not.

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2 responses to “Saint-Sernin Basilica, the Tarot of Marseilles, and Whitley Strieber

  1. Could the figure of Christ have been substituted to avoid the card being blasphemous? Much Early tarot symbolism is deliberately changed to conceal real references which would have been very punishable at the time.
    Or maybe the figure of Christ was substituted for either a feminine or more androgynous figure? Much of the feminine was subjugated in Church symbols. Perhaps Fulcanelli’s language of the Cathedrals has more to reveal?
    Early tarot provides some startling symbols which have endured and now deciphered through radio images of our galaxy. Some of these symbols appear in crop formations! My website http://www.cropcircleconnected.com explains. It seems a historic celestial event which had a major effect on Earth and its life forms is remembered through the Tarot. Streiber mentions an inundation in the card of the Moon. This card was also known as La Lune Noire. An eclipsed moon. Eclipses seem to portend doom. I wonder why!
    I have a few misgivings with The Path but its still a very interesting little book.
    By the way, the shapes which appeared during this great celestial event have presented as The Holy Grail, The Fleur de Lys and others including the thunderbolt weapons of the gods and various owl shaped goddesses etctetc If you have a look at the site you can link to much more on this and how these shapes were carved in rock in the Neolithic age to warn posterity.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Uqwuqw.

    It’s certainly possible that Christ was changed to a non-Christ figure to avoid blasphemy. Some early tarots, as I recall, considered the Pope and Papess cards blasphemous and replaced them with “Turks” or some such nonsense. Still, though, I wonder if placing a non-Christ figure in a setting which makes it obvious that it is taking the place of Christ would not be considered even more blasphemous (just as a crucifix with some non-Christ figure nailed to the cross would be seen as a mockery). Remember that the “Christ in Majesty” appears in many cathedrals and would probably be familiar to most Europeans at the time the tarot deck was being created.

    As for the opposite possibility — that the “World” image is the original from which the Christian image was derived — it seems very unlikely. The Christian image of Christ on his throne surrounded by the four living creatures is at least as old as the Bible itself, while there is no evidence that the tarot-style image is anywhere near that old.

    As for eclipses, I suppose they “seem to portend doom” because they seem to be violations of the order of nature. If the sun can go dark at midday, clearly anything can happen! Now that we understand the astrophysics behind such events and can predict them with great precision, they no longer seem so ominous.

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