The Bruegel Tarot arrived in a shipment we received last summer. I’d been thinking for a while about a Tarot deck based on the paintings of the sixteenth-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In fact, an image looking suspiciously like one of the cards in this deck appeared in the opening credits of Carnivale, a VERY strange HBO series we watched last fall and early winter.
The images in the deck are not taken directly from Bruegel’s paintings, yet Guido Zibordi Marchesi, a painter who specializes in medieval themes, clearly received inspiration from Bruegel’s work in developing the images for the cards. The major arcana are pretty straightforward, i.e., the Hermit is an elderly man with a long beard clad in a dark blue cloak and the Moon shows a crescent moon shining over a body of water, with the usual crab standing in the foreground.
The minor arcana depict sturdy peasants engaged in their daily activities, planting and harvesting, cooking and praying, slaughtering livestock and drinking out of large tankards. Marchesi has organized the four houses to correspond to the seasons — swords with spring, wands with summer, pentacles with autumn and chalices with winter. I had a lot of trouble trying to make sense of the meaning of these cards. For example, in most Tarot decks, the twos are about balance, but neither the images nor the text interpretations provided with the deck suggest that this is the case here. I also kept encountering symbols whose meaning eluded me entirely, e.g., a blue sphere with a gold cross on the top appears on the knight of swords, the two and the eight of pentacles, and the six and the king of chalices.
Although I know that the Tarot originated in Italy in the Middle Ages and has traditionally included a great deal of Christian imagery, I found that aspect of this deck just a little too thick for my taste. The angels look too much like Christmas card angels; there’s even a crucifixion scene on the ten of wands — horrors!
Lo Scarabeo (the Scarab), the publisher of this deck, is located in Torino, Italy. Llewellyn Worldwide in St. Paul, MN is distributing it outside the European Union. There is no book available to accompany the deck. The card package contains the usual interpretive booklet. But, because this product is being marketed throughout the European Union, the narrative is written in five languages — so that the amount of actual text in any single language is relatively small.
In fact, each card gets 1-4 lines of explanation. That’s just not enough information when you are trying to make sense of a relatively non-standard set of images. For example, the eight of pentacles, which I got in a reading a few days ago, shows eight men. One is standing on the blue sphere in the background, holding what appears to be navigational instruments. A fat one stands over a cauldron holding a tankard in his hand. One holds a metal object that looks like a long serrated knife and a wooden frame of some sort. One has three brushes protruding from a back pocket and holds a box of what appear to be gold coins. Near him, another one kneels next to a box with more brushes in it. A thin man stands on a tree trunk with his hands folded across his chest. Just behind him, another man is barely visible kneeling over something that might be a rock or a palette. In the front stands a heavy-set man wearing a fat leather purse and holding a scroll of paper on which is visible the word “iudicum.” Of course there are also eight gold coins on this card. (Mind you, all this detail and more is contained in an image that is just 4″ tall by 2 1/4″ wide!) The text tells me that this card is about Agreement and Ability. The associated proverb is “Learn a trade and leave it aside — don’t brag about your abilities for no reason.” But what do all the images mean, I want to know?
I think these cards are fine if you are a collector. They are probably not your best bet if you are seriously interested in using them to learn about yourself, or even about the Middle Ages.
(Lo Scarabeo, 2003)