Tarot cards are widely used in fortune telling nowadays and are available in
countless designs, some of which are of great beauty. With the advent of
portable digital devices such as the iPAD there are even versions available
for use on such tablet devices.
This paper is not intended to examine the decks in any detail but to merely
investigate any connection with some cards and the early Flemish Renaissance
painter Hieronymus Bosch.
The origin of the cards is nebulous to say the least, some attributing them
to diviners in Ancient Egypt and taken from there to Europe by the Gypsies;
others claim they were used by a wide range of groups such as the Knights
and even The Rosicrucians. Truth is they were originally used in a game called
Tarrochi in Italy, and our present day playing cards evolved from them. While
they spread across mainland Europe their advent in the British Isles seems
to have come later. Italian playing cards retain some of the suit designs even
today. The Tarot deck consists of 78 cards comprising 22 cards of The Major
Arcana and the 56 suit cards of the Minor Arcana. The former group may be a
Sadly there is no evidence of their use in divination until the late 1700s
their sole use being in games of chance. The oldest extant decks date from
the mid 1400s and are quite different in design from those that came later.
There are numerous ordinances banning playing cards dating from as early as
1367 in Bern.
I shall confine this paper to the possible association of three cards of the
Major Arcana with the artist below.
2. Hieronymus Bosch
Details of this amazing man are even vaguer than those of the Tarot. He was
born in 1450 in the town of Hertogenbosch on what is now the Dutch-Belgian
border (then in Babant) and died there in 1516. From its records we also know
he was a member of a local order The Brotherhood of Our Lady about which we
know nothing else. Going by the strong, even disturbing content of many of
his works this may well have been a devoutly Christian esoteric group. I recommend
accessing GOOGLE where many of his works can be found.
I have been fortunate to see some in London’s Tate Gallery as well as in the
El Prado Museum in Madrid, and they made a deep impression which has lasted
over many years.
checking reproductions of many of his paintings I can find Tarotic associations
with only two, plus a very probable third, all within the Major Arcana.
Due to the size of this file I have had to include pictures separately and
I will refer to them as I progress.
(a) The Fool. Bosch made several versions of a possibly tarot-related picture,
we shall consider two. Picture 1 can symbolise our journey on the Path of
Life. Classically the subject walks towards a major hazard while looking the
Known among other titles as “The Wayfarer” he wanders along in a daze oblivious
to a couple being robbed to his left, a hideous gallows on the hill behind
him. and an amorous couple to his right. Ahead is a narrow bridge over a precipice.
Watch out, Fool!
Some may see masonic import in the bare knee, but Bosch lived long before the
advent of Masonry in Scotland and its spread elsewhere. I find the example
in Picture 2 of even more interest.
Bosch did not give titles to many of his paintings and among those added years
later to this painting are “The Prodigal Son” and “The House of Ill Repute”.
Our Fool now wanders in a rural landscape still looking away from the path
ahead and oblivious to the den of debauchery behind him and what could be the
true path to his right. The bare knees of this subject may merely be due to
worn out breeches but the exposed left heel is intriguing. After all, he was
a member of an esoteric order.
In contrast, a fool of much later date is depicted in the Classic Tarot. (Picture
3) The Fool evolved into The Joker in the 53 playing card deck.
(b) The Conjuror. Also known among other titles as “The Juggler”, and “The
Magician.” He is associated with confusion and deception, adequately demonstrated
in Picture 4.
Bosch depicts a street conjuror amazing an audience of locals but look again.
A woman leans forward gazing in amazement while a small child tries gaining
her attention. She is totally unaware of the respectable looking man standing
behind her stealing her money pouch. The conjuror’s accomplice or just an opportunistic
thief? He appears to be wearing the garb of a Dominican friar.
To his left stands a woman in red engrossed in watching the conjuror and apparently
unaware of the man on her right who seems about to fondle her left breast while
his other hand is on her right shoulder near her necklace. Is he about to assault
her or is he going to steal the necklace, or is thi
Compare this example with the more orthodox 16th-century version in Picture
5. No audience here, and note his hat brim is an infinity sign.
(c) The Haywain Triptych Right Side.Picture 6. While satisfied that the previous
two examples have connections with the tarot this is dubious but added as an
item of speculation which could depict the tarot card The Blasted Tower. On
the other hand, the complete triptych has a central subject of a huge hay wagon
surrounded by examples of good and evil with demons, angels, and Jesus in a
cloud above. This depicts our earthly existence; that on the right depicts
people in heaven and that on the left hell. The complete painting may be seen
While the third example must go into the dubious basket, I am convinced that
the other two paintings by Bosch are based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot.
My initial reaction was to wonder whether he was working on his own tarot
deck, terminated by his death, but on reflection my conclusion is the first
two examples were individual works inspired by the recently introduction
of the deck to Europe.
I am far from being the first to mention such connections, Mia Cinotti (The
Complete Paintings Bosch, Weidenfeld & Nicholson,
1966) mentions a late 19th-century scholar named Combe as associating Bosch’s
works with alchemy and ‘the occultism of tarot cards’ but alas gives no references.
Nor does Stuart R. Kaplan (Encyclopedia of Tarot, American Games systems, vol
1 1966, vol 2 1988) make any reference to him.
I am certain Kaplan made a connection between Bosch and the tarot in one of
those volumes but have been unable to locate it on re-reading after 30 years.
Atanassov saw strong connections between Bosch and tarot to the extent he
created a tarot deck based on Bosch’s works in recent years, this is commercially
available. (Check on GOOGLE.)
So what may we positively conclude? Only that this amazing precursor of surrealism
remains an enigma, who wrapped stunning paintings, and surrounded by as much
chaos and paradox as his amazing works.