Tarot of the Saints by Robert Place Review by Mark McElroy
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In even the most casual encounters with Tarot, participants and observers exhibit unusually strong responses to the images on the cards. We often explain the intensity of that response by referring to the archetypal nature of the cards themselves.
Most people harbor equally strong feelings when practicing their religion. Given this, we might expect the stories upon which those religions are based to be strongly archetypal – and, indeed, they are. Again and again, the myths and legends associated with a religion, as preserved in holy texts or life stories about characters revered by a movement, contain archetypal elements.
In his striking Tarot of the Saints, Robert Place, a gifted artist and painstaking researcher, synthesizes the archetypes of the Tarot with those of the Christian faith. The resulting seventy-eight card deck relates the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana, the court cards, and many of the pips to remarkable, inspiring, and occasionally bizarre stories taken from the lives of Catholic saints.
The Tarot of the Saints channels the energies of each of the Major Arcana through the personality and experience of a saint (including some whose sainthood is now being questioned or revoked by the Catholic church). Minor courts also portray the Squires, Knights, Queens, and Kings of each suit as saints.
Place associates saints with Trumps and court cards with great precision. In every case, his portrait of the saint and the accompanying story enhance the traditional meaning of the card. The Fool becomes Saint Francis of Assisi, who enthusiastically took on ministries – including preaching sermons to animals – that others with limited vision would deem foolish. The Magician becomes St. Nicholas, who combined material wealth and powerful faith to transform the lives of the less fortunate.
Christian tradition tends to overlook the roles and contributions of women; happily, this is not true of the Tarot of the Saints. Mary Magdalen appears as the Papesse, framed by the portal to the tomb of the risen Christ. As the mother of Emperor Constantine, St. Helena takes her rightful place as the Empress . Women also appear as the subjects of cards traditionally considered neuter: St. Catherine adorns the Wheel, and St. Margaret (because of a story suggesting she burst out of the belly of a dragon) appears on the Devil card. And because her story fits so well with the concept of the twelfth trump, St. Blandina replaces the male depicted on more traditional versions of the Hanged One.
Place executes his theme with less consistency in the Minors. Minor pips present an arrangement of suit markers suggesting the meaning of the card. Pip illustrations occasionally depict saints, but also borrow from Old and New Testament stories. In some cases (the Six of Swords in particular) the pip illustration fails to connect with any specific saint or legend, breaking with the theme of the deck entirely.
Hallmarks of Robert Place’s artwork include clean lines, bold colors, and delicate, clever shading techniques. More than one reviewer of his Alchemical Tarot noted the iconic quality of his work, which transmits a great deal of emotion and information through figures of deceptive simplicity. He chose to execute the Tarot of the Saints in the same style, with powerful effect. As a result, these luminous cards reward close study.
Some figures appear against bold, solid backgrounds for contrast; Place works others into complex visual essays. The resulting images demand speculation about their meanings. Gold borders frame the excellent artwork, with an inner border color-keyed to the suit: pale orange for Coins, sky blue for Swords, red for Staffs, sea green for cups, and royal purple for the Majors.
Card backs appear drab by comparison, imprinted with an unattractive purple-on-white, non-reversible design (Place advises against using reversals in his accompanying text.)
Packaging and Publishing
Llewellyn’s appealing external package for the Tarot of the Saints book/deck set catches the eye, with fourteen full-color card images arranged on the bright purple box. Llewellyn also includes an odd, non-descript cardboard storage box. This generic box, a little smaller than a VHS slipcover, dwarfs the deck, which rattles disconcertingly when placed inside.
Because the cards are more slender and smaller than the Alchemical Tarot, the Tarot of the Saints shuffles easily. Given the price of the deck/book set, I expected the cards to be printed on a heavier, sturdier stock. Despite a good, slick finish, the cards feel more flimsy than other Llewellyn decks (the Nigel Jackson Tarot, for example).
The good companion book begins with an all-too-short history of Place’s experience with the Tarot and the sequence of events leading up to the creation of the Tarot of the Saints. The artistic integrity of this deck begs for more information on its creation – the challenges, the insights, the processes – but the text abandons the artist’s personal journey and moves quickly to a scholarly history of the Tarot, Gnosticism, and the saints themselves. Readers familiar with work by Robert O’Neill (who contributes the foreword for this volume) and Tom Tadfor Little will recognize their acknowledged contributions to this section.
Detailed entries for each of the Majors relate the stories of the corresponding saints. After the richness of this material, the descriptions and divinatory meanings for the Minors seem almost a afterthought ("Six of Cups: Christ washes St. Peter’s feet. This card represents love, nurturing, and humility" – presumably not one of the "fresh, insightful interpretations" alluded to on the box copy!).
Personal Notes and Observations
The tendency of the pip illustrations to depart from the theme of the deck, combined with the shorter, less engaging text for the minors, prompts me to wonder whether this deck began as a Majors-only project which Place was encouraged to expand into a seventy-eight card deck.
Even so, I enjoy using the Tarot of the Saints for personal readings. As a former minister integrating Tarot into a spiritual path still rooted in Christianity, I find Place’s synthesis of Church mythology with Tarot’s symbolic network enormously satisfying and appealing.
Unfortunately, I find few of my clients and friends connect as readily as I do with this deck, especially with the Majors and court cards. In these cases, our session invariably wanders from the question at hand to questions about the history of the saints in the spread. Since most people I work with lack grounding in Catholic tradition, I wind up doing a great deal of the talking. This flies in the face of my preferred approach when reading for others, requiring me to be more directive or prescriptive instead of reflective and supportive.
Interestingly, while Place’s Alchemical Tarot is based upon alchemical illustrations, these cards prompt an instant, intuitive, and visual understanding of their meaning. One need no understanding of alchemy to use the Alchemical Tarot (though even a basic introduction, like the one supplied in the companion book, enriches the experience).
Because the Tarot of the Saints conforms to the structure and conventions of most Tarot decks, knowledge of the stories behind the saints isn’t absolutely required. Even so, I imagine most users will want to at least browse the companion book in order to become familiar with the background of the Majors and courts. Unless they’re experienced scholars of Catholic sainthood, I expect even experienced readers will find themselves reaching for the book to add depth and dimension to the readings done with this deck.
If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.
Tarot of the Saints by Robert Place/Book: A Gnostic Book of Saints (Deck/Book
Mark McElroy works as a writer, creativity consultant, and multimedia designer in Jackson, Mississippi. He began his study of the Tarot in 1997, after travels in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, and Thailand introduced him to various methods of divination, including the I Ching. His approach emphasizes using the Tarot to generate insights, spark creativity, and plan action. His upcoming book, Putting the Tarot to Work, explores practical applications of the Tarot in business and corporate environments. His first Tarot deck, a work in progress, can be seen at his personal website.
Images © 2001 Llewellyn Publishing
Review © 2001 Mark McElroy
Page © 2001 Diane Wilkes