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Thomas Mc Rae
[To Thomas Mc Rae’s index]

Tarot and Hieronymus Bosch

By Tomas Mc Rae, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, © 2012


1. The Cards

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 Templar 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 later addition.

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.

On 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 other way.

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 at www.abcgallery.com/B/bosch/bosch74.html.


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.

A. 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.

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