Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The World


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1999


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, August 2018


The World card in the Visconti-Sforza Tarot (figure 1) shows the Celestial Jerusalem inside a circle held by two angels. This depiction conforms to the explanation of this Triumph given by the author of the Sermones de Ludo: as “The World that is God [the] Father”. In Christian mysticism the square corresponds to the earthly world and what is material, and the circle symbolizes divinity, since it has neither beginning nor end. In the medieval Aristotelian cosmological vision, the image of a circle with progressively smaller concentric circles inside it represents the divine creation. There are many examples of this, one of which is the Prima Causa in the so-called Mantegna Tarot (figure 2 - E Series). In the Romanesque church of San Clemente at Tahull, in Catalonia, a fresco shows the Creator’s hand which, starting from the center of the circle, passes in a “transcendent” way through the circles exterior to it,  thus creating the tangible universe.


In the Ercole I d’Este Tarot (figure 3), as in the Dick (figure 4) and Rosenwald cards an angel hovers over a circle in which a landscape is depicted, symbolizing the tangible world that God holds inside himself. In the Charles VI (figure 5) and Alessandro Sforza (Catania) Tarots (figure 6), a woman holds a scepter and golden globe in her hands, symbols of command (as in the case of the Emperor of the former deck), on top of the image of the world contained in a circle. To represent a personage over a circle depicting the earth, as an attribute of authority or protection, was a recurring methodology during the Renaissance. We can see this in the Florentine school’s image of Saint Augustine that appears in a woodcut dated 1460/1470, now in the Biblioteca [Library] of Ravenna (figure 7).


In this regard, Claudia Cieri Via considers thatthe Charles VI card “seems inspired by the iconography of Glory or Fame, although the same image was also confused with luck, in any case referring to the world in which fortune determines fate” (1). On the other hand, the lady has an octagonal halo, an attribute seen in that deck only in the three virtue cards. In that sense she could be Sapienza, i.e. Wisdom, the virtue that Saint Thomas praised even more highly than prudence, in that “prudence is wisdom about human affairs: but not wisdom absolutely, because it is not about the absolutely highest cause, for it is about human good, and this is not the best thing of all” (2). In the Old Testament Wisdom is given a feminine personification as Sophia (Greek for “Wisdom”), of whom it says, among many other sayings, “She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well” ” (Wis. 8:1, Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition) Also: “And if riches are a desirable possession in life, what is richer than wisdomwho effects all things?” (Wis. 8:5, Ibid.).


The earliest known World card is that of the Visconti tarot now at Yale University (figure 8). However it would not be recognizable as such without knowing the ones that came later. What identifies it with the World is the scene in the lower part of the card, with a castle-studded landscape and ships at sea beyond. The frame for this landscape is not in a circle as in later cards but an arch in the style of the ancient Roman triumphal arches, that is, a rectangle whose top boundary has been replaced by a semi-circle. Above the arch is a lady holding a one hand and a crown in the other. The trumpet, which is not found in the Charles VI card, clearly identifies her as Fame, by which the news is spread. It is also one of the six Triumphs of Petrarch. In the scene below her, a knight holding a flag is at the center and so likely either in quest of fame or its recipient.


In the card of the Anonymous Parisian Tarot, which dates from the 17th century, the Goddess Fortuna appears instead, in her function as dominatrix of the world  (Imperatrix Mundi), and she stands naked on the globe to decide its destiny (figure 9). The sail partially open to the wind shows her helpful side, but also her ability to lure us with strivings that she won’t fulfill. We may recall here Cesare Ripa’s exposition of the winds as representing our thoughts, and the sail the power to act on them. Ripa says of an image symbolizing the Will, “The inflated aail shows that the winds of our thoughts, when they stimulate the will, make the ship, that is, the whole interior and exterior man, move, and go where she pulls it” (3)  On the card it is she who controls the sail, holding it close to her. That her feet are placed on a globe topped with a cross, means that Fortune directs the empires of the powerful, without looking at anyone in the face. In fact she looks mercilessly straight ahead, going her way without bothering with what collapses under her feet. Fortune’s placement on a sphere conventionally indicated her instability. The form of the cross is not original, but continues the typology already present in medieval jewelery, which exalts with gems the ends of the arms of the cross and its center.


In a tarot World card found in the walls of the Sforza Castle during remodeling around 1900, but dating to the late 16th or early 17th century   (figure 10 - Museums of the Sforza Castle, Milan), we can see an iconographic variation that will then become stabilized in the Marseille Tarot (figure 11): a maiden, or possibly a delicate young man, is portrayed inside an almond, surrounded by animal figures symbolizing the four Evangelists (known collectively as the Tetramorph).


It suggests the Anima Mundi [World Soul], whom we can see depicted in the image of a woman in the Latin manuscript Clavis Physicae put together by Honorius of Autun in the 12th century, now at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (figure 12 - Cod. 485-IV, c. 32r.) This complex of illustrations and schemas represents “one of the most perfect expressions of the imaginative activity of men during the 12th century and at the same time the most faithful translation of the representation of the universe connected to the Platonic, or Platonized, system, as the Greek fathers and their 9th century disciple John Scotus had interpreted it” (4).


In the thought of Plotinus and Porphyry, as for Plato before them (Timaeus: 30a-37c) the function of unifying matter in its mix of the four elements to make a harmonious whole is that of the World Soul, a demiurgic [i.e. formative] principle that is at the same time the receptacle of the body of the world/cosmos and the principle that maintains the universe as a unity.


The Anima Mundi as depicted in the manuscript of the Clavis Physicae, unlike the figure on the Tarot of Marseille card, is not nude, a later symbolic refinement. Laura Simonini writes: “In the Biblical tradition, the nudity of Adam and Eve is a symbol of a status in which everything is shown, with no veils. For the Gnostics, as for Porphyry, nudity is symbolic of an ideal to follow: it is the nakedness of the soul that refuses the body, as garment and prison, to reach its true original status and return to its divine roots. Naked is the initiate at the mysteries and naked is the soul ascending to the divine” (5).


Honorius’s Anima Mundi  has two medallions on either side of her head containing images of the Sun and the Moon portrayed as a man and a woman each holding a torch. The girl holds a little banner in her arms on which is written: “Vegetabilis in arboribus, sensibilis in pecoribus, rationabilis in hominibus” (Vegetable in trees, sensible in animals, rational in human beings). On the four sides are medallions representing the four elements, supported by three hands. The qualities of each element are written on each medallion. At the woman’s feet an inscription is reminiscent of the three faculties that Plato gives to humanity: “Rationabilitas, Concupiscibilitas et Irascibilitas” [Rationality, Concupiscibility and Irascibility].


Abelard will see in the Holy Spirit the World Soul, the Anima Mundi of which the monks of Chartres speak as well. William of Conches, annotating the Timaeus (34c-35 c), affirms that the soul of the world is a spirit or a natural force inherent in things, conferring on them movement and life. It is totally and integrally in everything, but its power acts in many different ways. It is in the middle of the Universe and gives movement to stars, vegetation to trees and plants, sensibility to animals, reason to men.


The Anima Mundi described by Honorius, unlike that of the World card now at the Museum of the Sforza Castle, is not set in the middle of the outline of an almond [mandorla, in Italian], a symbol that appears in many depictions of the Virgin in Glory (figure 13 - Pinturicchio, The Virgin in Glory between Saint Gregory and Saint Benedetto, Museo Civico, San Gimignano) as well as of Christ  Pantokrator


The almond shape is the symbol of interiority hidden by outward appearance, therefore containing the mystery of interior illumination. The image of Christ inside the almond means that his divine nature was hidden inside his human nature. Likewise the soul of the world is not visible to the senses, but is the power governing those external appearances in material form. When surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists, it is Christ in Majesty, but again the world-soul, as the divine Logos, or ordering principle, through which, according to the Gospel of John “all things were made (Jn 1:3). Accordingly in the tarot of Jacques Viéville, instead of a female figure in the center we see one who is obviously male (figure 15). Is it perhaps Christ himself?


In all the World cards in the tradition of the Sforza Castle card, the four Evangelists are portrayed on the four sides of the almond in animal form (the Tetramorph), as described by Saint John in Revelation 4:7and as they appear in the visions of Christ Pantokrator. In 1565 Francesco Piscina wrote a now-famous essay called Discorso sopra l’ordine delle figure de Tarocchi [Discourse upon on the order of the figures of the Tarot]. About this card he writes: “Now the Author has placed the image of the world in the middle of these four Holy Evangelists, in order to teach us that the world cannot be without religion, whose precepts have been written by these Holy Evangelists. Religion is the main foundation of the peace and conservation of the nations and of the happiness of the peoples; without it (as we have already said in many places) we could not save our soul, which was born only to serve the Most Great Lord Our God” (6). (Hora la figura del mondo in mezo questi quattro Santi Evangelisti l’Autore ha posto, per insegnarci che il mondo non può star senza religione, i precetti della quale hanno scritto questi Santissimi Evangelisti, essendo ella il principal fondamento della quiete e conservatione de stati e della felicità de popoli, e senza la quale - si come gia habbiamo in molti luoghi accennato - noi non potremmo salvar l’anima nostra, nata solo per servir al Grandissimo Signore Dio Nostro).


No extant card of the standard tarot sequence precisely fits Piscina’s descriptionof an “image of the world in the middle of these four Holy Evangelists”. However if we consider that the word “mondo” in Italian means “universe” as well as referring to our terrestrial globe, then the fiftieth (and last) image of the Series S version of the Tarot of Mantegna, done a little later than the E series, fits his description well (figure 16).  It might also be a circle with hills and castles in it, as in some other early World cards, or something else.


Christianity derived the feminine image of the Anima Mundi from the religions of the ancients. Isis was esteemed as the World Soul by Macrobius (7) while Apuleius has Isis speak in these terms: “I, natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements, the first child of time, the supreme divinity, the queen of those in hell, the first among those in heaven, the uniform manifestation of all the gods and goddesses,,,”  (“rerum naturae parens, elementorum omnium domina, saeculorum progenies initialis, summa numinum, regina manium, prima caelitum, deorum dearumque facies uniformis”) (8). And most closely associated with early Christianity was the Jewish Wisdom of God, a feminine personificaiton “who effects all things” and who “orders all things well”, as previously cited. These descriptions suggest finalization of the text in a Platonizing milieu.


Regarding depictions of female figures within an almond, Van Rijmberg in a work of 1947 mentions a Florentine maternity dish of the 15th century, now in the Louvre, where a woman is depicted completely naked in the sky within an almond while under her, on the ground, some men appear (9). The artist has outlined the paths of the gaze of the latter who are all focused on the sex of the goddess (figure 17). If for Van Rijmberg the figure of the woman is a representation of the eternal feminine and the woman-almond marriage a symbolic vulva, the scheme of a Cteis [the feminine symbol in ancient Greece, corresponding to the masculine phallus] thus representing Love, for the iconologist Claudia Cieri-Via the image would represent Venus in an act of “dispensing her powers on humanity below”, inspiring and shaping such a depiction, through a broader meaning of the principle of life, to be an “image symbolic of the world” (10).  


With a similar scope, an image in the book Imagini de gli Dei de gli Antichi [Images of the Gods of the Ancients] of Cartari (figure 18 - 1626 edition, image added by Lorenzo Pignoria) shows us a nude Apollo-Jupiter combination, a charioteer’s whip in one hand and lightning bolts in the other, as a representation of the Anima Mundi.


What Cartari says is this: “Macrobius nevertheless relates that in one particular locale in Assyria, where they thought that the Sun and Jupiter (who manifests the soul of the world) were one and the same, there was a gold-plated, beardless statue with its arms raised. Its right hand held a whip in the style of a charioteer, and the left contained a lightning bolt and some grain hooks. These objects indicated that the power of the Sun and Jupiter are joined together as one” (11).


The clause in parentheses indicates that Cartari considers that what makes the image a representation of the world soul is Jupiter. He makes the point again in the opening paragraph of his section on Jupiter, saying of him that “the Greeks had a name for him that showed that he was the source of life for every living thing. That’s why the Platonists took him for the soul of the world [...]” (12).


However Cartari also describes Apollo in a way that is much like how Plato describes the world soul. First Cartari characterizes the Muses as inventors of the liberal arts, which he follows with an imagined scene: “Holding each other’s hands they performed a lovely circular dance led by Apollo; he is that light from above that symbolizes the human mind, or shows that Apollo is at the center of these disciplines. Apollo is given a place in the middle not only here but in the universe as well, because he spreads his power through everything, and that’ s why he was called heaven’s heart. And in order to show that he had power there, and on the earth as well, and even in the underworld, the ancients put a lyre in his hand, taking that to


That description needs only to be compared to Plato on the world-soul: “And in the centre [of the universe] he put the soul, which he diffused throughout the body [...]. The soul, interfused everywhere from the centre to the circumference of heaven, of which also she is the external envelopment, herself turning in herself, began a divine beginning of never ceasing and rational life enduring throughout all time. The body of heaven is visible, but the soul is invisible, and partakes of reason and harmony, and, being made by the best of intellectual and everlasting natures, is the best of things created” (14).


The lady on the Tarot of Marseille card characteristically has one leg raised and might be in motion, perhaps even dancing. If so, she might have been inspired by the scene of the Muses dancing around Apollo, similar to the world soul “turning in herself”. In fact Dürer did a woodcut with precisely the most appropriate of the Muses, Urania (the Muse of astronomy, and Greek for “heavenly”), holding the celestial sphere in a way that is reminiscent of both Plato and the Tarot of Marseille World card (figure 19 - Albrecht Dürer, Urania, 1502). While Dürer’s Urania is not in an almond, Claudia Cieri Via notes that sometimes Urania was, like the Virgin, Isis, and Venus, given that honor, as indicated “by the presence in some cases of the compass in the hands of the female figure” (15).


In the alchemical text Quinta Essentia of 1570 by Leonhardt Thurneyesser Zum Thurn, a nude woman is in the middle of numerous progressively bigger almonds totally surrounded by the rays she emanates (figure 20). She is called Anima Mercurii, Latin for “Soul of Mercury”.


According to C. G. Jung in his study “The Spirit Mercurius”, this Mercury was the alchemical equivalent of the Platonic world soul. He cites a text of Mainz 1679, the Coelum Sephiroticum Haebraeorum by Johann Steebe, that Mercurius is the “supercelestial spirit which is conjoined with the light, and rightly could be called the anima mundi” (16) Mercurius is also, Jung says in the same essay, called spiritus vegetatus, i.e. “spirit of life”, in the Tractatus Aureus, published 1678 but written much earlier (17), as well as coelem, meaning “heaven”, in the Tractatus Micresis, published 1660 but dating, Jung says, to the 14th century (18).  He concludes that “It is clear from a number of texts that the alchemists related there concept of the anima mundi on the one hand to the world soul in Plato’s Timaeus and on the other to the Holy Spirit, who was present in the Creation and played the role of procreator” (19). This relation to the Holy Spirit is similar to what we have seen in Abelard.


In an earlier work consisting of notes taken by Jung’s students, he reportedly characterized this same Anima Mundi as the “Quinta Essentia”, so called because it transcends and governs the four elements; as such its attainment as “redeemed microcosmos” marked the Completion of the Work (20).


It is of interest to observe the iconographic similarity between the dancing girl in the card of the Tarot World of Marseilles and the depiction of Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance) (figure 21 - Bronze, India, State of Tamil Nadu, Chola Dynasty, c.990 d. C.), where the dance of God, placed in the middle of a circle of fire, assuming a cosmogonic value, becomes a symbol of the creation and transformation of the world.




1 - Claudia Cieri Via, Il Mondo [The World], in G. Berti and A, Vitali, eds., “Le Carte di Corte. I Tarocchi, Gioco e Magia alla Corte degli Estensi” [The Cards of the Court. The Tarot, Game and Magic at the Court of the Estensi], Bologna, Nuova Alfa Editoriale, p. 181. Thanks to Michael S. Howard for the rest of this paragraph, on Wisdom.

2 - Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II.47.2.1.

3 - Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, overo descrittione di diverse imagini cauate dall'antichità & di propria inuentione, Trovate, & dichiarate, da Cesare Ripa Perugino, Cavaliere de Santi Mauritio, & Lazaro, Di nouo reuista & dal medesimo ampliata di 400 e più immagini [Iconology, or descriptions of various images gleaned from antiquity & and of proper invention, Found and described by Cesare Ripa Perugino, Knight of Saints Maurice and Lazarus, Newly revised & the same expanded of 400 & more images], printed by Lepido Favij, Rome, 1603 p. 520.

4 - Marie Therese d’Alverny, Le Cosmos symbolique du XII siecle [The symbolic Cosmos of the 12th century”], in “Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Age”, XX, 1953).

5 - Laura Simonini, editor, notes to Porphyry, De Antro Nimpharum [The Cave of the Nymphs], Milan, 1996, pp. 239-240. Here is the full passage, including the references reported by the scholar (the original Italian, is in the Italian version of this essay):

"For the Gnostics, as for Porphyry, nudity is the symbol of an ideal to be pursued: it is the nudity of the soul that rejects the body, as clothing and prison, to reach its original state and return to its divine roots (Acta Thomae, 21; 27): Symbolically it is death to the profane world, prelude to initiatic rebirth (see EINM [M. Eliade, La nascita mistica [Mystic Rebirth]), Brescia, 1980], pp. 48-55), and thus purification. Naked is the initiate at the mysteries (Plotinus, Enneads. 1, 6, 7, referring perhaps to the mysteries of Isis) and naked is the soul ascending to the divine (Chaldean Oracles fr. 116, 2 Des Places; see Aristophanes, Clouds 498ff, - Orphic mysteries)”.

6 - Discorso dil S. Fran. Piscina da Carmagnuola sopra l’ordine delle figure de Tarocchi [Discourse of Mr. Francesco Piscina of Carmagnola on the order of the figures of the Tarot], In Monte Regale, Published by Lionardo Torrentino, MDLXV [1565], p. 22. Translation, with minor corrections, from Ross Caldwell, Thierry Depaulis, and Marco Ponzi, Explaining the Tarot: Two Italian Renaissance Essays in the Meaning of the Tarot Pack, Oxford 2010, p. 25.

7 - Saturnali, I, c. 20 -21.

8 - Metamorphoses 11, 5, Jack Lindsay translation, The Golden Ass, Bloomngton IN, Indiana University Press, 1960, p. 237. Latin original of 1st century c.e. at

9 - Gérard Van Rijnberg, Le Tarot. Histoire, Iconographie, Esoterisme [The Tarot: History Iconography, Esotericism], Guy Trédaniel Édition de la Maisnie, Paris, 1981, p. 186.

10 - Claudia Cieri Via, op cit., p. 18

11 - Vincenzo Cartari’s Images of the Gods of the Ancients, trans. John Mulryan, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renissance Studies, Tempe, Arizona, 2012,  p. 43.Translator’s note: Although this translation is of the 1771 edition, the last in Cartari’s lifetime, the text (as opposed to some of the pictures and their captions) is the substantially the same as the later edition from which the Italian version of this essay derives its quotations from Cartari..

12 - Ibid, p. 101.

13 - Ibid, p. 47.

14 - Plato, Timaeus, trans. Benjamin Jowett, 34b, 36e-37a. In “The Collected Dialogues of Plato Including the Letters”, Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., Pantheon Books, New York, 1961, pp. 1165-1166. Originally in Greek, 4th century b.c.e. For an Italian translation of the passage done in Cartari’s time, very close in meaning to Jowett’s, see the Italian version of this essay. Thanks to Andrea Vitali for finding this translation.

15 - Cieri-Via, op. cit., p. 180. Thanks to Michael S. Howard for the last four paragraphs.

16 - C. G. Jung, “The Spirit Mercurius”, in Alchemical Studies, vol. 13 of the Collected Works, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1967, p. 214. Originally presented as a lecture in 1942, published as “Der Geist Mercurius” in Eranos Jahrbuch 1942, Zurich, 1943, and revised in 1948.

17Ibid, p. 213.

18 - Ibid, p. 219.

19 - Ibid, p. 214. Thanks to Michael S. Howard for the information from Jung in this paragraph.

20 - Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: notes of the seminar given in 1934-1939, vol. 2, by Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 1988, p. 1401. English original from notes taken of Jung’s lecture on Nov. 9, 1938. Similar connections are made by Giordano Berti, in Il Libro di Thot, ovvero, l’interpretazione esoterica del Tarocco, in G. Berti and A. Vitali, op. cit., pp. 209-210.


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali © All rights reserved 1999