”Did Leonardo Da Vinci encounter the Tarot while working for the Sforza family? No one knows. It is intriguing, though, to imagine his reactions to the cards…and to envision the sort of deck Da Vinci, a Renaissance Master, might have produced.” – From the companion booklet to the Da Vinci Tarot
Books by Margaret Starbird and Elaine Pagels, coupled with the popular novel and movie The Da Vinci Code, has re-awakened an interest in the Mary Magdalene mythos as well as the Renaissance Master himself. Was Da Vinci connected to forbidden sects and secret societies that preserved and protected the history and lineage of Mary Magdalene and Jesus? No one knows for sure, but there is little evidence to support these theories.
Nevertheless, the enigmatic smiles of Da Vinci’s subjects as well as his futuristic inventions intrigue us to this day. Renowned for both The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Da Vinci created drawings of fantastic flying machines, detailed anatomical sketches, and a myriad of inventions—including advanced weaponry.
Commissioned in 1992 to create a series of 22 paintings for a Majors only deck, Iassen Ghuiselev culled images from Da Vinci’s notebooks, diagrams, and artwork. Art historian Marco Bussagli hailed the artistic works, which featured Da Vinci’s mirror-script for the card titles and tiny glyphs adapted from the Master’s designs. Over a decade later, a new artist was recruited to replicate the subtle shading techniques of Ghiuselev for the Minor Arcana. Atanas Atanassov completed the Minors in 2002, but Lo Scarabeo decided to expand the Da Vinci Tarot with a new kit, which includes a 63-companion guide written by Mark McElroy. The card images in the Da Vinci Tarot depict androgynous characters, fantastical beasts, and enigmatic expressions depicted in muted shades of brown, gray, and green. Six languages announce each card title and the construction is consistent with traditional decks. The suits are Chalices, Pentacles, Swords and Wands and the Court attributions are Knave, Knight, Queen, and King. Wands are associated with element Fire and Swords with element Air. The card backings are fully reversible, depicting doubled images of the Queen of Wands. Measuring approximately 4 ¾ inches by 2 ½ inches, the sturdy but flexible card stock has a slick, matte finish and shuffles easily. In the companion booklet, McElroy admits that some card meaning stray from traditional meanings, making the Da Vinci Tarot an unwise choice as a beginner’s deck. For example, the provided meanings for the Two of Pentacles are “clarity, untainted love, honest friendship, unconditional love and acceptance, engaging in love for the simple pleasure of doing so.” Traditionally, relationships, love, and emotions are the realm of the Cups/Chalices/Water suit, not Pentacles. The meaning for the Ace of Chalices is “growth, eating well, fostering a sense of well-being, tending to the healthy advancement of body and spirit, taking advantage of opportunities to be nurtured.” Apart from the latter meaning, this description sounds much more like the traditional realm of the Pentacles/Earth suit, which governs health and the physical body. For each card in the Da Vinci Tarot, McElroy gives a brief commentary and three exploration questions, as well as what they encourage and caution against. For some cards, the author offers illustration notes, highlighting the source of card images. It’s my understanding that the artist didn’t keep track of which sketch or painting went with each card image, but McElroy’s curiosity and tenacity spurred him to resolve the derivations.
There are some omissions and mistakes in the booklet, including duplicating the card meaning of the Empress for the Emperor and a typo for The World, which says “The figure on The Sun…” To be honest, I’m not sure if there are other mistakes because I couldn’t get past the Majors with a mere cursory reading of the booklet. Surprisingly, the companion booklet is a dry read. Surprising, because McElroy is usually an engaging author. Granted, hints of his cleverness and inventiveness peek through, but the booklet bored me to tears. I was going to push through the entire 63 pages, but I figured “why bother?”
While the mirror-script and icons in the background of the Majors add a hint of mystery and additional intuitive information, I found most of the card images uninspiring. The artists are very talented, especially with shading techniques, but most of the image selections aren’t conducive to symbolic interpretation and intuitive association for those who don’t memorize meanings to apply to every deck. I performed a reading and found the Da Vinci Tarot wanting. It just doesn’t “speak” to me and, for the first time as a reader, I actually found myself thinking of the Rider-Waite correlations in the attempt to glean some information from the spread.
This deck would be great for rabid fans of Da Vinci and art deck collectors. However, I found the deck and companion booklet quite bland, despite the care taken with its execution.
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