Renaissance Tarot Deck (Jane Lyle) - Review by Lee A. Burstenlyler8.jpg (15845 bytes)

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This is a wonderful new deck published by Fireside/Simon & Schuster, the same publishers who brought us The Mythic Tarot. It comes in a deck/book set. The book is by Jane Lyle, author of The Lovers’ Tarot. The cards are by Helen Jones. This deck is not to be confused with the Renaissance Tarot Deck by Brian Williams (U.S. Games) or the Tarots of the Renaissance by Giorgio Trevisan (Lo Scarabeo). (I’m starting to sense a trend here...)

There’s one thing I want to get out of the way first. As in The Mythic Tarot, most of the credit is given to the author(s), while the illustrator is listed as an afterthought. It’s especially egregious in this deck, where Jane Lyle’s name is featured on the box, while underneath, in tiny, tiny print, it says "Cards Illustrated by Helen Jones." This introduces a mystery. How much input did Lyle have in the actual design of the cards? Was Lyle the A.E. Waite to Jones’s Pamela Colman Smith? The copyright page simply says, "Card illustrations copyright 1998 by Helen Jones." At the back of the book Lyle thanks Jones "for being my co-creator." The history of the deck’s creation is not addressed in the book, so we are left to wonder what the division of labor was. But whatever it was, Jones surely deserves more credit than she’s getting, especially since she’s provided such marvelous illustrations. The folks at Fireside need to realize that we may read the book a few times and then put it away, but the cards are what we hold in our hands and use year after year.

Getting to the cards themselves, they utilize a type of illustration that I have not in a Tarot deck before. Each card is a photograph of a highly detailed bas-relief sculpture; that is, the objects and figures are three-dimensional sculptures, although the back side of the sculptures is probably flat. The three-dimensional elements are placed against a background of vividly colored paper or fabric, often with slight folds or creases to provide texture. I cannot imagine the amount of time and effort that must have gone into the creation of these cards. The end result is quite striking.

The human figures on the cards are metallic, either gold or silver colored. Their clothes appear to be made of soft clay, which has been molded into such finely detailed drapes and folds that it makes you want to reach into the card to feel them. The metallic figures do give a rather cold feeling to the deck when you first look at it, but I found that I got used to it quickly enough.

As if to make up for the fine detail of the sculptures, the symbolism of the cards is on the simple side, which always appeals to me. The cards communicate the messages of the archetypes quite clearly and simply, with an iconic quality that I don’t often see on decks other than the Waite-Smith.

The symbolism on the Majors is sometimes standard, and often original; but even the original symbolism seems perfectly logical and well-thought out. For instance, the High Priestess contains a snake and a black cat; on Judgement, winged hearts replace the usual rising figures; Justice balances a huge pair of scales on an upraised finger; the Fool plays a lute.

Sometimes the imagery is surprising and bold, but, again, logical. For example, on Strength a white unicorn replaces the usual lion, which makes perfect sense in light of the myth that only a virgin (i.e., one pure of heart) could tame the wild unicorn. The World is another striking card; she stands with her feet crossed, nonchalantly tossing her hair back, while in one hand she holds what appears to be a rolled-up diploma, complete with red ribbon. Below her feet are a small sun and moon.

The sun and moon make a more striking appearance on the Lovers. Here a golden man with a sun face clasps the hands of a silver woman with a moon face, while Cupid aims his arrow from above. The man wears a tiny moon around his neck, and the woman wears a tiny sun, making a nice yin-yang effect. Red and white roses climbing up each side complete the picture.

Temperance is another extremely attractive yet simple card. One side of her shirt is red, the other orange; one side of her skirt is black, the other white; one wing is black, the other red. One jug is red and the other white, while between them flow a red stream and a white stream. Two silver ribbons, symbolizing water, flow around the sides of the card and at the bottom, where they entwine around one of her feet, reminiscent of the Waite-Smith Temperance with one foot in the water.

Two cards have had their symbolism changed more dramatically. Death has become a phoenix, symbolizing rebirth, presumably to avoid a negative visceral reaction to the standard skeleton. At the phoenix’s feet is a small skull and crossbones. And the Devil has become a rather positive picture of a Pan-like creature dancing in a forest, face crowned by leaves and feet hoofed.

The Court cards are King, Queen, Knight, and, rather awkwardly, Page~Princess. I think the authors should have chosen Page or Princess; I don’t think we really need both, and using a tilde rather than a hyphen makes it even more unwieldy. The figures on the Court cards are human from the waist up. From the waist down they take the form of the appropriate elemental creature. The Cups are mermen and -maids; the Swords, sylphs; Wands, fire-spirits; and Pentacles, earth-spirits. The figures are posed in expressive postures with their suit symbol as well as other appropriate symbols; for instance, the Knight of Cups is surrounded by sea horses, shells, and fronds of seaweed.


The authors have struck a clever balance between illustrated and non-illustrated pips. About half of the number cards are simply suit symbols arranged into a picture suggestive of their meaning, with perhaps another symbol such as a ribbon or a heart. The other half actually contain human figures posed in dancer-like postures, interacting with the symbols. The resulting scenes suggest the Waite-Smith cards in their meanings but not visually. For example, the 3 of Pentacles shows a figure holding up two pentacles while balancing on a third. A simple picture, but evocative. On the 10 of Wands, a figure carrying a wand trudges up a set of stairs composed of nine other wands.

One aspect of this deck that I’m a little dubious about is that the figures on these pips are naked, genderless, and faceless, unlike the figures on the Court cards and Majors. The result is a little eerie. Their heads are perfectly smooth and metallic with no features whatsoever, making them look as if they just stepped off a UFO. All they need is large black eyes to complete the picture. Conceptually it’s a nice idea; since the figures are without gender or race, they take on an Everyman quality which is quite appropriate. It just takes a little getting used to, and it gives a rather aggressively modern quality to a deck which is supposed to evoke the Renaissance.

One thing I like about all the suit cards is that they are color coded. The backgrounds of Pentacles are dark green; Wands, dark red; Cups, light blue; and Swords, violet. This makes it much easier to get a feeling for a spread as a whole when you lay the cards out.

The book that comes with the deck is generally pretty good. Lyle presents her theory that the Majors can be arranged in a lemniscate pattern which she calls the Wheel of Infinity. The cards on opposite sides of the wheel form pairs which she believes are linked in meaning, and she and Jones have "included subtle design links between these pairs, to highlight their mysterious partnership and to enhance your sense of the Major Arcana as a complete entity." Some of these pairs, like High Priestess-Moon, Empress-Star, and Emperor-Tower, are indeed suggestive of links in meaning, but some of them, like Chariot-Death, are beyond my ability to find a link. The design links are also sometimes apparent and sometimes not. I personally don’t think this sort of thing is really necessary, although it might perhaps help some beginners who may be overwhelmed by so many individual cards.

After this, the book goes on to present Lyle’s interpretations of upright and reversed cards. Here again the author has struck a clever balance, this time between psychologically oriented interpretations and predictive ones. A beginner could use only this book and gain a good understanding of the cards. A nice feature is that the interpretations of the Court cards include and upright and reversed meaning dealing with personalities, and an abstract meaning so that you can apply the card to a situation. Unfortunately these lean more heavily towards the predictive. I’m not necessarily opposed to some predictive interpretations, but when there are too many of them it can overload the reader if he or she tries to memorize them all.

The interpretations of the cards in general sometimes apply more easily to other decks than to the cards in this deck. For example, the Devil, a benign image, is given a generally negative upright interpretation, while the reversed interpretation is even more negative. I found it more useful to think of the upright card as the more benign aspects of the Devil -- i.e., gentle and appropriate outlets for desires -- and the reversed card as the more negative aspects. Of course, if one doesn’t use reversals, both aspects would be incorporated in the upright image. In fact, the symbolism on the cards is so universal that you certainly don’t have to stick with Lyle’s interpretations if you have already developed strong feelings for what the cards mean to you.

The cards, at 5 inches by 3 inches, are a good size for the art but are slightly unwieldy to shuffle. The box is a silly thing which is useless once the package has been opened.

I strongly recommend this deck. Visually it’s a feast, and definitely something different from the norm. The symbolism is well-thought-out, with some surprising but valid takes on the traditional pictures. This could very easily serve as a primary reading deck.

See more cards from the Renaissance Tarot Deck

If you would like to purchase this deck, click here.

The Renaissance Tarot
Fireside/Simon & Schuster
Rockefeller center
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
ISBN 0-684-85490-2

Review Copyright 1999 Lee A. Bursten

Page Copyright 1998 Diane Wilkes