The Stained Glass Tarot

by Luigi Scapini

The title on the package for this deck is actually ‘Tarocco delle Vetrate’, its Italian name. Here is yet another lavish deck by the Italian artist and professor of art history Luigi Scapini, the author of the Scapini Medieval Tarot and the Tarot of Romeo and Juliet. This deck could not be more different from those other two.

Scapini has here again combined his expertise in art history and tarot into one amazing deck. But now we discover that he is thoroughly versed in the history of Gothic and Medieval stained glass windows. In fact he explains in his booklet with this deck that he himself has been creating them for years, and that he has become well aquainted with Italian and European stained glass windows and the philosophies behind their symbols. He merely hints at the complex of these esoteric ideas which flowed through the early medieval period, and summarizes, “This is the world from which the first tarot decks came”.

Perhaps because the Church was such a large patron at the time, iconic imagery often used biblical scenes to tell their message. Illuminated manuscript painting was evolving and being refined at that time as well. I've long believed there is a deep historical connection between the artistry of Gothic cathedrals, illuminated manuscripts, and the tarot. And this is one reason that I'm attracted to this deck. The early tarot decks appeared near the end of the Gothic era, which saw the developing science of stained glass windows and manuscript painting in Europe. All of these art forms were likely molded by similar world views, similar patrons, and probably similar guilds of artisans. They each use iconic imagery to codify the questions and answers of their day. These craftsmen and thinkers shared ideas among themselves, not too unlike what our tarot community has been doing in the last century and a half.

A stained glass window manipulates a heavy, 2 dimensional medium and seeks to pull us into a multi-dimensional world filled with light. Scapini's cards, too, are filled with multiple layers of foreground and background. Far behind his Magician is a glowing sun, and over it is a representation of the Tree of Life whose spheres have stars with progressively numbered rays. This card being to Scapini everything symbolizing the number one and beginnings, the Magician “invents and sets in order” the four elements upon the three-legged table, with our world in the middle. And in this world we may meet the Devil, one happenin’ dude who must be on his way to Carnevil. Scapini amusingly writes about him that he was thrown out of the first world because he knew the whole story and wasn't afraid to say so. Since then, he tries to entice us away from the “world of the one” into the inertia of the elements. If that doesn't work I think he may open a costume shop in New Orleans. The maiden of the Star, says Scapini, knows that we are all made from the same stardust, and that we are moving with the stars towards a certain aim - like the wise men behind her, following the star of hope.

The minor cards in this deck use a huge variety of beautiful patterns, ornamentation and colors; each one is quite different from the next. The Six of Cups shows sky, clouds and six cups which pour a steady flow of liquid, called by Scapini “the fruit of ancient experience”. This flow of wisdom is being honored by two blue angels near the top of the card spreading scented incense. Behind the pattern of the Seven of Swords appear two Imperial Eagles. They represent the spiritual shrewdness we can use to bring about peace and prosperity. The Nine of Wands are lying in a bed of forest ivy, showing they have nearly exhausted their energy. The Knight of Wands is a powerful Fire image. In Scapini’s words: “Here fire, the precarious balance of a rearing horse, all the strength of a strong ancient highlander, the defeated dragon, suggest all the energy necessary for the final solution symbolized by the couple ‘St.George and the Dragon’.”

Scapini believes that the esoteric nature of the tarot is derived largely from Neoplatonic thought and the medieval Cabbala, and he gently weaves these ideas into his decks. But what really comes through in this entire deck are the many allusions to other legends, characters and famous works of art. For example his Chariot shows Elijah ascending, with several details of the story as well as some elements from Socrates’ chariot story. The Ace of Cups shows a large chalice between the faces of the two cherubs on the Arc of the Covenant, with the tablets below. His Justice card is based on the Alchemy image in the northern rose-window of Laon; his Page of Coins from a Renaissance window of St. Petronio, Bologna; his Queen of Cups inspired by Ingres’ ‘The Source’ and ancient virginity symbols.

This deck is published by Dal Negro and can usually be found at Alida or R. Somerville of Edinburgh.

Review by Mark Filipas, 12/7/99