Tarot of the Saints by Robert Place Review by Diane Wilkes
If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.
Many of my tarot buddies have long recommended Robert Place's Alchemical Tarot, a deck I have, but have neglected due to that famous saying, "So many decks, so little time." The need to review the new Tarot of the Saints didn't allow me the luxury of neglect*, and that's a fact for which I will be forever grateful.
Why the gratitude? Reading A Gnostic Book of Saints, the companion book to Tarot of the Saints, was an absolutely wonderful learning experience. My knowledge of tarot in general, along with a new understanding of alchemy and history, has grown exponentially. Robert Place, who is an excellent artist, gets even more kudos from me as an author--he makes things that are often rather dry interesting and accessible.
Most companion books to decks concentrate solely on the accompanying deck. Not A Gnostic Book of Saints! The first chapter, "The Origin of the Tarot," discusses the history of tarot, giving "Eighteenth-Century Savant" Court de Gebelin significant face-time. The second chapter provides context and background on "Mystics, Gnostics, and Saints." Place covers The Tetractys, three stages (Temperance, Courage, and Prudence), the trumps as allegorical symbols, and focuses on the World card in particular in chapter three, "A Mystical Interpretation of the Tarot."
The next chapter, "A Parade of Saints" is a card-by-card description of the Major Arcana. This section is particularly fascinating from a historical point of view, because Place not only gives the story of each saint, he describes the card as it has been portrayed throughout time, providing examples from the Marseilles, Visconti-Sforza, Sola-Busca, and many others. The actual card interpretation (which he entitles "Tarot Wisdom") is surprisingly pithy and usually insightful.
Before Place gets into the Minor Arcana, he sets up his particular framework for those cards with the next chapter, "The Fourfold World," wherein he describes the four suits and how they pertain to the four humors and also the Jungian personality types (Intuitive, Thinking, Sensing, and Feeling). Place attributes Thinking to Swords and Sensation to Coins, which is somewhat typical; he assigns Intuition to Cups and Feeling to Staffs (Wands), which is less so. There is also a section on "The Qualities of Numbers," which provides various meanings for numbers one through 10. I found this entire chapter quite valuable.
Chapter six covers the Minor Suits, which includes the Court Cards. While all the Court Cards are assigned to Saints, Place draws from the well of biblical stories to illustrate the numbered cards of the Minor Arcana. These descriptions are not nearly as detailed nor put into historical context. In fact, they are often more brief even than the "Tarot Wisdom" descriptions of the Major Arcana. The suits are entitled Staffs (Wands), Cups, Swords, and Coins (Pentacles). The suit of Coins is illustrated with communion disks bearing Jesus' monogram (IHS).
Court cards are Squires (Pages), Knights, Queens, and Kings. Place makes the point that traditionally Squires served Knights, Knights served Queens, and Queens served their King, and service is in keeping with a deck devoted to saints.
The last chapter, "Divination," gives Place's approach to using the tarot. He uses the textbook definition of divination as "getting in touch with the Divine" as being above mere fortunetelling, and states, "...the cards work best when they are used to help us create a more fulfilling future." Place eschews reversals and suggests we do the same (the backs are not reversible). He is a proponent of the three card reading (he talks about the special qualities of the number three in chapter three and in this chapter as well). He offers The Relationship Spread and The Personality Cross, which use more than three cards, but both can be broken down into sectors of three cards each.
The cards themselves are brightly colored and elegantly, eloquently drawn and the parallels of the saints to the archetypes of the Majors are thought-provoking, if occasionally disconcerting. As I usually think of the Empress as the spouse of the Emperor, Place's take on these two cards seems odd--the Empress is based on St. Helena, mother of Constantine, who is the Emperor. St. Jerome is the saint attributed to the Strength card because of his hard-won humility. Death is correlated to St. Stephen-Martyrdom--a characteristic I normally think of in connection with the Hanged Man.
The World card description includes a chart matching the four evangelists to the four symbols of the World. It would be helpful, I think, had Place mentioned the four zodiac signs connected to this card are fixed, not cardinal, as he keeps emphasizing the quality of cardinality pertaining to the World. Someone not astrologically savvy would assume that these signs are cardinal as well.
The Minor Arcana meanings are often somewhat similar to the Rider-Waite-Smith images. The Three of Cups shows Mary Magdalen and two companions approaching Christ's tomb, which shows friends standing by one another in times of trouble. The Eight of Swords shows an imprisoned saint, with the eight swords hanging over him as a symbol of possible execution. The Six of Coins, a card often depicting a man giving alms, shows a pelican, which is a symbol of Christ, since both give their blood to nourish their "children."
Other Minor Arcana cards are completely inimical to the familiar R-W-S images. The Eight of Cups, for example, displays King David playing his harp, representing creativity and joy.
As a Jewess, I was unfamiliar with many of the saints depicted in this deck, but most people will recognize St. Joan (of Arc) as the Queen of Swords. I think of the Maid of Orleans as more of a Page/Squire type myself, but hey...I'm no expert.
But I have certainly learned a lot from this beautiful, well-thought-out deck/set. I recommend it for anyone interested in learning painlessly about tarot history, as well as those interested in saints, and, of course, tarot collectors. Lastly, I recommend this deck to all Robert Place enthusiasts, a club of which I have now become a charter member.
If you would like to purchase this deck/book set, click here.
You can see a sample reading with Tarot of the Saints here.
* There are several reviews of the Alchemical Tarot on the site. You can see two here and here.
Tarot of the Saints by Robert Place
Publisher: Llewellyn Publishing
Images © 2001 Llewellyn Publishing
Review and page © 2001 Diane Wilkes