Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on Tarot

The Hermit


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1997


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, February 2018 


In the Visconti Sforza-Tarot, the Hermit is depicted as an old man leaning on a stick and holding an hourglass in his hand (figure 1).


In the so-called Tarot of Charles VI, a similar personage, but without a stick, is looking at the hourglass that he holds high with one hand (figure 2). A stylized mountain appears in front of him: its top, very near the sky, participates in the symbolism of the transcendence, the meeting point between heaven and earth and the limit of human ascension. In this regard, John of the Cross (1579-1585) writes in the Ascent of Mount Carmel: “...the soul that is to ascend this mountain of perfection, to commune with God, has … to renounce all things and leave them below” (1). 


The principal enemy of hermits is the devil, who continually tempts them (figure 3 - Figures of hermits with tempter Devil, part of a fresco by Giovanni da Asciano on the life of Benedetto of Norcia, 14th century, Abbey of Sant‘Antimo, Sacristy. Notice the detail of the hermit who tends a rope to which a basket is attached. The latter serves for receiving subsistence food from the local faithful, in consideration of the indispensable necessity of his not having any direct physical contact with people, to the end of promoting the best possible concentration).


In the cards of Bologna a column appears behind the old man’s shoulders (figure 4 - Tarocchino Al Leone, 1770). Its presence is connected to the ancient tradition of the hermitage oriented towards the ‘stylite’ [Greek for ‘pillar-dweller’]. Columns were part of a pagan symbolism in which idols were set upon them (figure 5 - Dances around the golden calf, detail of folio 59v. Exodus. Historic Bible, Vienna, ca. 1470). At the sight of the golden calf set above a column, Moses lifts the tables of Law high in the air in order to throw them to the ground and destroy them.


These columns were transformed by the stylites into places of elevation and Christian sanctification. Such columns were put near monasteries or villages and were  from 10 to 20 meters high. The most famous stylite was Simeon the Elder, Syria, 390-459), who remained on a column for twenty-seven years, performing miracles and conversions, but above all, meditating. Another important stylite was Simeon the Younger, a native of Antioch, who lived for forty-five years on the column he had erected at the centre of the monastery he founded on the Admirable Mountain (figure 6 - Nemeh of Aleppo, St. Simeon Stylite and St. Simeon of the Admirable mountain, 1699, Lebanon, Monastery of Notre-Dames de Balamand). We can see that these columns were fitted on top of the balcony, railing and roof, and that their food was hauled up by pulleys.


In the Nuremberg Chronicle we find various illustrations in which some apostles, who in their lives were hermits and preached the gospel, are shown being killed because of their faith. Behind them a whole column, or one that is breaking up, appears. from which a devil falls into the void. As mentioned above, these columns originated in pagan times, when idols were set on top of them. In Christianity the Devil represents the idol par excellence, the adversary of God, forced to fall from his own pedestal because of the Apostle Saints who, first with their thought and subsequently with their preaching and death, offered themselves to the cause of their faith, demolishing thereby the false faith in idols (figure 7- Michael Wohlgemut, Torture of Simon / figure 8 - Michael Wohlgemut, Torture of Mattia, woodcuts, both 1493).


In addition, the column also represents ‘ruin’, cited by Ripa  in his book  Iconologia (on which more later) as a result of the inexorable passage of time. In fact the depiction of ruins almost always includes a lone erect column among the rubble.


In some Minchiate decks a stag appears, an animal that pulls the Chariot of Time in illustrations of Petrarch’s Trionfi (figure 9 - Georg Pençz, Triumph of Time, woodcut, 16th century). What is the connection between Time and stags?  It seems that people in ancient times believed it was long-lived, even if Aristotle in his work Historia Animalium denies it: “About the duration of the life of the deer, some say it is long-lived but there is nothing definite that can confirm this legend” (2).


In Christianity this idea acquires an allegorical meaning.St. Thomas Aquinas says, in his commentary on Psalm 21, “Item cervus optime salit: sic Christus de fovea mortis ascendit ad gloriam resurrectionis. Et ideo cervus dicitur, et matutinus dicitur, quia tunc surrexit” (Again, the stag leaps the best, just as Christ ascended from the pit of death to the glory of his resurrection. And for this reason, stag and of the morning are said, because he rose at that time) (3).


“Stag of the morning” is Aquinas’s translation of the phrase in the Vulgate’s Ps. 21:1, “cervo matutino”, which he interprets as an intimation of Christ’s resurrection. So in relation to an old man facing the end of his life, he has ahead of him the hope of the resurrection.


In the Physiologus of pseudo-Epiphanius, an exegetical text about nature interpreted according to the canons of the Christian faith, the stag has three ages that serve to offer a moral teaching for humanity: “Its horns are characterized by three branches, because during its life it renews them three times. It lives fifty years and travels like a fast runner in the depths of woods, the precipices of mountains, smelling out the dens of snakes” (4).


In this description, “depth of woods” is allegorical in relation to the darkness of sin that forces man into a state of darkness, to be gone out of swiftly, “like a fast runner”, while the mountain precipices represent the path, not easy but difficult, to discover the traps of Evil (the lairs of the snakes).


Then the stag draws out the snakes from their lairs with the breath from its nostrils and devours them, after which it must go quickly to a spring to drink, in order not to die from the venom. If it does so within three hours, it will renew its life for another fifty years (figure 10 - Anonymous, 16th century Rome).  "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God": as the deer yearns for streams of water, in the same way the Christian must yearn for the water of baptism to free himself from the poison of sin. The deer purified from the poison therefore became a symbol of the baptized Christian (5). 


Pseudo-Epiphanius adds: “You, man of reason, have three renewals. The first is the one you get through baptism, that is, incorruptibility; the second is the grace of adoption, and the third, that of penitence. If you succeed in surprising the snake, that is, the sin in the recess of your heart, you immediately  draw upon springs of water, that is,  the springs of the Scriptures (according to the interpretations of the prophecies) and draw in the water of life in the holy gift. Communicating to you the penitence by means of which you will be renewed and your sin will become completely extinct” (6).


We should remember that the images of the ancient gods in the medieval and Renaissance epochs were not assimilated according to the concepts of the ancients but utilized and interpreted according to Christian thought, assuming moral and doctrinal meanings (7).


In the Minchiate of Florence (figure 11 - Minchiate of Etruria, 18th century) and the Tarocchino of Bologna (figure 12 - Tarocchino Al Leone, 1770), the Hermit is depicted according to the iconological model of the God of Time, i.e. Saturn: an old winged man (Volat irreparabiles tempus) (Time flies irreparably) with crutches (since he is old, they keep him upright).


In the famous Liber de imaginibus deorum [Book of images of the gods] attributed to Albricus (Alexander Neckam, 1157-1217), the god is described in this way: “Saturn was seen by the ancients as an old man with a beard and long hair, infirm and melancholic, pale and with his head covered. He holds a sickle in his right hand, with a snake that bites its tail, and on his left is a child near his mouth, as if about to eat him. Next to him are his children Jupiter, Neptune, Juno and Pluto”. The image of Saturn is expressed according to a standard iconographical typology in the so-called Mantegna Tarot, in the series of Planets and Celestial Stars of the Universe (figure 13).


In order to avoid the fulfillment of a prophecy according to which he would be dethroned by one of his children, Saturn devoured them one by one. But Rhea, his wife, succeeded in giving birth secretly to his last child, Jupiter, who defeated his father, inheriting his kingdom.


Originally Saturn was a divinity linked to agriculture, who over time assumed the role of god of Time. The Greek word chronos, which means “time”, is in fact similar to Kronos, the mythical god who devoured his children, the Latin Saturn. As god of agriculture Kronos-Saturn is depicted with a sickle in his hand, who gathered the harvests and became, following the identification of the two gods as only one, a tool that cuts off man’s life. Saturn therefore passed from devouring children to devouring everything, since he (Time) destroys all, beginning with his children “the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years”. The arrow that strikes the hourglass, as shown in the Florentine Minchiate (figure 14) has this significance.


In the Middle Ages, thanks to the illustrations of De universo by Rabano Mauro, of De Civitate Dei by Saint Augustine, of the Ovide Moralisé and of Fulgentius metaforalis, the god was gradually identified with Wisdom and reached his highest expression in the thought of Florentine Neoplatonism and the Renaissance alchemical tradition.


Ripa in his Iconologia offers us various descriptions in which Time (a word deriving from the medieval Latin temps, whose root means ‘to cut’) contains elements linked to Saturn: “An old man in clothes of various colors, holding a coiled serpent in his right hand, he will go slowly and with delay... The Snake in such fashion means the year, according to the ancients, and is measured and characterized by time, & is immediately united with itself”, and again, “a winged old Man, who holds a circle in his hand: & is in the midst of ruins, has his mouth open, showing his teeth, and they are the colour of iron. The circle signifies that time always goes around, and has neither beginning nor end, but is the start and end only of terrestrial things, & its elements are spherical. The ruin and the open mouth, & the iron teeth, show that time melts, spoils, consumes, & dashes to the ground everything that is without value & without effort” (8)


As god of the melancholic temperament, Time was depicted in the guise of St. Jerome and other hermit saints and was in this manner subsequently depicted in the tarot. Such transformation was also due to an assimilation of the hourglass with the lantern (figure 15 - Tarocco al Soldato, Milan, 18th century), a typical object used by pilgrims, as we can see in a woodcut of 1510 by H. Steiner with St. Christopher ferrying the child Jesus (figure 16), and in an engraving by Grechetto representing Diogenes self-searching for himself in solitude (figure 17).


The image of the Hermit, associated with the inner search, also results in a relationship to Fortune. In this connection Claudia Cieri Via writes: “To her (Fortune), understood as Fortune and the vanity of earthly things, is opposed intellectual inquiry and thus those values counterposed  to the frailty of life and its purely material connotation, calling into question as much the eschatological existence of medieval culture as the intellectual - scientific culture of Italian humanism(9).


A 17th century engraving by Giovan Baptista Bonacina depicts Saturn as Time-Hermit with scythe and hourglass, while with dice he is gambling the fate of the world with Fortune.. The latter appears with hair covering the front of her face according to the motto “Seize Fortune by the forelock" (figure 18). Even if this is true, man cannot defeat Time since “Pulvis est et in pulvere reverterit” (Man is dust and to dust he will return). The engraving is a Memento Mori that in medieval thought indicated the way of meditation. Meditation was the second of four steps formulated by the monk Guigo II (1140-1198) for what he called the Lectio Divina (Divine reading): first lectio (reading), then meditatio (meditation), then oratio (prayer), and finally contemplatio (contemplation). Guigo writes, "One day when I was busy working with my hands I began to think about our spiritual work, and suddenly four stages in spiritual exercise came into my mind: reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation (lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio). These make a ladder for monks by which they are lifted up from earth to heaven. It has few rungs, yet its length is immense and wonderful, for its lower end rests upon the earth, but its top pierces the clouds and touches heavenly secrets. Just as its rungs or degrees have different names and numbers, they differ also in order and quality; and if anyone inquires carefully into their properties and functions, what each one does in relation to us, the differences between them and their order of importance, he will consider whatever trouble and care he may spend on this little and easy in comparison with the help and consolation which he gains". (10).

The first step is "autem lectio sedula scriptuaru cum animi intentione inspectio"  (Careful reading of scripture done with an attentive spirit). In the case of a picture, however, the first step would be viewing, but with a knowledge of the language of symbols.

Then the second step, meditatio, according to Guigo, is "studioso mentis actio, occultae veritatis motitiam duclu propriae rationis investigans"  (the studious action of the mind to investigate hidden truth, led by one's own reason).  That is the use of reason to get at the the meaning that lies beneath the surface of the image.

Then for the third step Guigo said, "Oratio est devota cordis in Deum intentio pro malis removendis vel bonis adipiscendis"  (Prayer is the heart's devoted attending to God so that evil may be removed and good obtained).  It is asking God for guidance in the light of the picture.

The final step is the goal sought by the hermits and monks.Guigo said: "Contemplatio est mentis in Deum suspensae quaedam supra se elevatio eternae dulcedinis gaudia degustans" (Contemplation is the mind suspended, somehow elevated above itself, so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness).  At this point pictures are no longer needed.




1 - St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 1,5,6, translation by E. Alison Peers, Garden City, New Jersey, Image Books, 1958, p. 36.

2 - Aristotle, op. cit. in the text, 578b.

3 - See:

4 - Pseudo-Epiphanius, op. cit. in the text, Cap. V.

5 - Idem.

6 - The reference is to Psalm 41.2, 42:2 in the King James Version.

7 - See, for instance, the description in the essay about Temperance in reference to the Alessandro Sforza Tarot.

8 - Cesare Ripa, Iconology, Rome, Lepido Faeij, 1603, pp. 482-483

9 - G. Berti - A. Vitali (edited by), Le Carte di Corte. I Tarocchi. Storia e Magia alla Corte degli Estensi [Cards of the Court. Tarot. History and Magic at the Court of the Estensi], 1987, p, 172.

10 - Translation from Guigo II, The Ladder for Monks: A Letter on the Contemplative Life and Twelve Meditations, translated, with an introduction by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo MI, 1978, pp. 67-68.


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 1997