Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Empress


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1995


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, January 2018


A crowned queen, with a shield in one hand and the baton of command in the other, characterizes the image of this triumph in the Colleoni-Baglioni (Visconti-Sforza) Tarot (figure 1). The presence of three rings, with points in her garment for recurrent diamonds, identifies the person depicted as Bianca Maria Sforza, as Giuliana Algeri attests (1). The emblem of the three rings as a symbol of the Sforza is attested in numerous manuscripts, among which is Urbino Latino 899 of the Vatican Library, in which the wedding of Costanzo Sforza with Camilla of Aragon is narrated. Another emblem in the empress's gown is a crown with palm and laurel branches on the sides, a device used by Duke Filippo Maria Visconti. Since the crown indicates rule, the whole emblem indicates Visconti rule over the Duchy of Milan. These symbols together, the three rings and the ducal crown with its fronds, proclaim a new duchess in the Visconti line, succeeding her father Filippo despite his apparent wishes to the contrary, as well as her rule as a Sforza in virtue of her marriage to the new duke Francesco Sforza. The eminent tarot historian Michael Dummett considered the joint presence here of the rings with the ducal crown-plus-fronds as “uncontestable proof that the pack was painted after 1450, the year Francesco made good his claim to the title of duke; before that, he would not have dared to combine them” (2).


An eagle is depicted on the empress’s shield, which since ancient times had been perhaps the most widely depicted animal in heraldry since ancient times. It became the symbol of the Roman legions, the insignia of the Byzantine empire, the emblem of the regal dynasty of the Hohenstaufen and the symbol of the Holy Romano Empire, adopted by Charlemagne because he wanted to perpetuate the power that it had had in Augustus, its first representative.


As to why this bird of prey was selected to symbolize power, we need to recall tradition. The Byzantine Christian writer known then as “Dionysius the Areopagite” writes:


“The eagle tells of royal might and of the thrust to the pinnacle of the speeding wing, of the agility, readiness, speed and cunning to locate nourishing food, of the contemplation  which is freely, directly, and unswervingly turned in stout elevations of the optical powers toward those generously abundant rays of the divine sunshine” (3).


Also, the Christian world set up the eagle as a symbol of Christ. In the Liber formularum spiritalis intelligentiae by Saint Eucherius of Lyon, one of the most authoritative figures in the Church of Eastern Gaul in the 5th century, we read: “The Eagles are the saints; in the Gospel (Matthew 24,28) it is written: ‘Wherever there is a corpse, here the eagles will be assembled’. Because the holy souls, when they go out of the body, meet Christ, who dying became himself a corpse for them. The eagle also means Christ, as in Solomon (Proverbs 30:19), that is, the ascension of Christ" (4)


In the Theobaldi Physiologus of the 11th century the initial verses about the eagle affirm: “Esse ferunt aquilam super omne volatile primam, / quae se sic renovat , quando senecta gravat: / fons ubi sit, quaerit, qui numquam surgere desit; / it super hunc coelo fitque propinqua Deo” (They say that the eagle is superior to all the beings that fly, which renews itself when old age burdens it; it searches for the spring that never stops flowing; it flies above it and arrives next to God) (5). Lines that should also be symbolically interpreted as the ability of every good ruler, obviously superior to every other person, to govern well, despite old age, thanks to continuous study and recourse to those who are able to offer wise advice, thus approaching, through the correct choices of command, to the will of that God from whom he or she had received the scepter of power.


The iconography of this triumph remained virtually unchanged in succeeding productions up until the occult tarot. In a certain way, in the card of Wirth (figure 2)  some elements of the Empress approach the figure of the Virgin of the Apocalypse: the moon under her feet, which indicates her dominion over sublunar, that is, earthly, things; the twelve stars around her head, and finally the wings. “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev. 12:1, King James Version). Wings are not mentioned, but some artists gave them to her, i.e. Dürer in 1511 (figure 3) ; they would allowed her to escape quickly from the "great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his head" (Rev 12:3), after which, having given birth, "her child was caught up unto God" (Rev. 12:5) and "the woman fled into the wilderness" (Rev. 12:6). The Empress did not have wings before the occultists added them; but they may have been suggested by the two sides of the back of her chair in the Tarot of Marseille (figure 4). 




1 - Cfr: Giuliana Algeri, Gli Zavattari, una famiglia di pittori e la cultura longobardica in Lombardia (The Zavattari, a family of painters, and the Longobard culture in Lombardy), Rome, De Luca, 1981, pp. 61-64.

2 – Michael Dummett, The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards, New York: George Brazilier, 1986, p. 102.

3 - Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, translated by Colm Luibheid, Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1987, p. 189.

4 - Francesco Maspero-Aldo Granata, Bestiario Medievale (Medieval Bestiary),Casale Monferrato, Piemme, 1999, p. 72.

5 - Ibid, p. 71


 Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 1995