The Emergence of the Rich Symbolic Imagery

of the Tarot Trump Cards


Playing cards entered Europe from the Islamic world where the earliest extant examples have been dated from the 12th century. As early as 1377 in Europe playing cards are being described as composed of four suits – cups, clubs / polo sticks, swords and disks. Each suit consisted of ten numbered and three court cards. The earliest surviving examples of such cards from the Islamic world are the so-called ‘Mamluk cards’ (illustrated below) held in Topkapi Palace library.


Designs of 4 Mamluk suit cards


The tarot evolved from decks like this through the addition of a fifth suit of trump cards. Their name, ‘trumps’, is derived from the word ‘triumph’, or ‘trionfo’ in Italian, and clearly indicates one of the major sources of the imagery used in their design.

Triumphs, dating from ancient Rome, were civic processions in honor of a successful general. In the middle ages they were enacted to welcome visiting royalty and for major civic and religious festivities. These ideas were subsequently amplified by the addition of pagan figures, mythological and religious iconography and converted into rich artistic and literary motifs representing such stock themes as the triumph of love, of death, of chastity, of fame and so on.


Triumphs of Love Chastity & Death by Francesco di Stefano c1450

Triumphs of Love, Chastity & Death by Francesco di Stefano c.1450


By the mid-15th century – in the same time frame as the creation of the first tarot decks – illustrations of the triumphs described in Dante’s ‘Commedia’, Boccaccio’s ‘Amorosa Visione’ and Petrarch’s ‘Trionfo’ had appeared in print. By the end of the 15th century Francesco Collonna’s highly illustrated, ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphillo’, made substantial use of imagery based on the Renaissance triumph.

The trump cards that were added to the basic card deck to constitute the tarot were drawn from this common stock of imagery. We can compare the ‘Sacrifice to Priapus’ from this book with the much simpler but parallel imagery of the Tarot de Marseille Chariot.


Two Chariots