Golden Tarot of the Tsar by A. A. Atanassov
Review by Lee A. Bursten   

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This is an extremely Christian deck, which ordinarily would make it not my cup of tea, but its unparalleled beauty pulls me in.  This is another deck with a “wow” effect, like the Nefertari Tarot by the same publishers.  The gold foil, like that used on the Nefertari deck, and like the silver in the Mantegna deck, is stamped with an intricate design.  For this deck, the design is made up of angels and curlicues.  Of course, it won’t show up on the scans.  You just have to see this deck to believe it. 

As if the gold stamping weren’t rich enough, it’s combined with beautiful dark red borders.  The combination of the gold with the red is simply good enough to eat. 

Then there’s the pictures themselves.  A. A. Atanassov, the artist who did such an excellent job with the Visconti Gold deck, has really outdone himself.  This deck is an outpouring of gorgeous pictures. 

For me, the Minor Arcana are actually more interesting than the Majors.  On the gold-stamped background, the suit symbols float at the top and bottom of the card, and in the middle is a small scene, painted in vivid, rich colors.  I don’t usually comment on the printing quality of decks, because I’m not knowledgeable about it; but just from looking at the cards, I can tell that this must have been a difficult job, accomplished brilliantly.  The gold stamping is perfect, with no raised impression on the backs of the cards (as was true with the Nefertari), and the colors are deeper and richer than other decks.  The scenes also contain gold-stamped highlights. 

An example of the excellent design and layout of the cards is the Nine of Swords, where the sword being raised by the Devil joins the eight suit-symbol swords to bring the number to nine.  While the Three of Swords shows, appropriately enough, a sorrowful scene (“Adam and Eve thrown out of Eden”), the picture looks so darn cute, with God’s scolding hand descending from the sky, that it’s irresistible. 

The scenes have all been chosen from Biblical stories, and they lead to a curious idiosyncrasy with this deck.  Mr. Atanassov is credited with “iconographic research,” and “presentation” is credited to Giordano Berti, with divinatory instructions by Tiberio Gonard.  Now, I’m not sure from this exactly who did what, but my speculation is that the person who actually chose the scenes did so based on the visual correlation with the standard Rider-Waite-Smith scenes (R-W-S).  However, when Mr. Gonard wrote the divinatory meanings, he seems to have derived them from the background story of the scene chosen, rather than the R-W-S scene which the artist was emulating.  So, for example, on the Four of Cups, the Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb is shown as an old man reclining on a hillside, while a hand with a cup descends from above.  The divinatory meaning given is “Invention.  Omen.  Enlightening.  Dream.”  

Actually this could be looked at as a good thing.  It gives the reader their choice; one can choose to interpret the cards using standard R-W-S meanings, which would be easy enough given the visual similarities, or one can follow the divinatory meanings given in the booklet.  Doing the latter would allow one the opportunity to gain greater depth of insight by researching the stories behind the pictures.

The Major Arcana are full-length pictures.  It would take a reviewer more conversant with both art history and Christianity than I am to comment intelligently on them.  However, there were three in particular that I found very interesting.

In The Star, the Holy Nativity is illustrated in a very dynamic picture.  There’s a lot going on here.  Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus are shown on a rocky hillside.  From inside a dark cave, a horse and cow look down on the infant.  The Three Kings on their horses are climbing up the hillside.  An angel hovers above, and the guiding star, shown as a shooting star, zaps down from the heavens.  The star is made up of the same gold stamping as the background.  Visually, this is quite an exciting scene. 

I liked the Judgement card because it’s shown from the angels’ perspective rather than the humans.  The angels stand at the edge of a hole filled with murky water which contains three humans (and the hand of a fourth).  One angel blows a horn, and the other appears to be using a long trident to fish the humans out, as if the angels were Eskimos, fishing at an ice hole. 

I was also intrigued by the World.  For such a Christian deck, I would have expected a picture of Jesus, especially since it’s been established by Robert O’Neill that the standard picture of a female World Dancer is descended from similar representations of Jesus.  But on this card, the four evangelists are shown at the corners, and at the center is simply a starry globe.  It makes for a very interesting and attractive World card. 

This deck must inevitably be compared with the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg, which also takes as its artistic theme Russian Orthodox iconography.  Unlike the Russian Tarot, which used the Russian icon style to illustrate Tarot concepts, the Tsar deck rather does the opposite, using the Tarot framework to present glorious iconic images.  This is confirmed by the LWB, which says, “In effect, Atanassov did not reinterpret the Tarot or modify the icons but rather adapted the Tarot to the icons by associating the traditional meaning of each card to a biblical subject or the portrait of a saint.  From this unavoidable choice, which radically transforms the traditional Tarot figures, come new interpretive possibilities.” 

In other words, the Russian Tarot is basically a standard Tarot deck done in an iconographic style, while the Tsar deck is more a set of icons structured into a Tarot deck.  I have to say that I prefer the Tsar deck for its stunning beauty.  I also think this would be an excellent reading deck, especially for a Christian reader, who will certainly find the new interpretive possibilities promised by the LWB.

You can read another review of this deck here  

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

Golden Tarot of the Tsar
Artwork, concept, and iconographic research by A. A. Atanassov; basic idea, graphics and innovations by Pietro Alligo; presentation by Giordano Berti; divinatory instructions by Tiberio Gonard; editing by Valentina Bolatto and Riccardo Minetti
Published by Lo Scarabeo, distributed by Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN #: 0-7387-0239-0

Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.