Perspectives Religion and Spirituality

Immaterial: Bonus Episode, Tarot

Grab a cup of tea and join us for a bonus episode on tarot.

Sep 14, 2022

17th century etching of two peasant card players and a skeleton representing death with the text,

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Early in our research for this season of Immaterial, we visited Marco Leona, The Met’s Scientist in Charge. Of all the things we talked about, the object he was most excited for us to see was the world’s oldest set of tarot cards. Made as a wedding gift for the Duke of Milan in 1458, each card in the deck is hand painted and illuminated with gold, small treasures that can be held in the palm of a hand. And like many of the objects and substances we’ve examined in previous episodes, the cards slip in and out of definitions of what art is and who it is for.

Tarot cards can be seen as cherished keepsakes, social invitations, spiritual callings, or tools of divination. Whether mass-produced or carefully rendered in unique sets, the decks are precious to their holders, who use them to tell fortunes, offer guidance, or render warnings. The many ways the cards can be shared or interpreted is enhanced even further by the sheer variety of visual elements available to tarot enthusiasts. Experienced tarot practitioners will be familiar with the widely-distributed Smith-Waite Deck, created by the artist Pamela Colman Smith in 1909. In 2015, artist Alice Smeets collaborated with a group of artists known as Atis Rezistans to recreate and recast Colman-Smith’s illustrations in a Haitian ghetto in an homage to creativity and strength of the country’s citizens. Visitors to The Met’s Thomas J. Watson Library will find a set of Smeets’s cards along with a deck designed by the French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, which echoes a real-life sculpture garden de Saint Phalle built in Tuscany called “Il Giardino dei Tarocchi.”

While tarot cards may not share the reputation of Rembrandt paintings or Rodin sculptures, they infuse daily life with beauty and meaning. But are they art? To explore this question, the episode also shares stories of three other decks: Cristy C. Road’s Next World Tarot deck, which The Met’s Senior Managing Educator of Audience Development and Engagement Suhaly Bautista-Carolina’s loves for its celebrations of black, brown, disabled, and non-binary bodies; The bread-loaf- and puffin-ornamented Carnival at the End of the World deck, which writer, poet, and journalist Alexander Chee uses to divine the fortunes of Immaterial host Camille T. Dungy; and the Slow Holler deck, an edition of tarot cards designed by a collective of artists, musicians, scholars, and writers to represent often ignored intersection between Queerness and the American South.

Listen for the whole story, and scroll through the gallery below to take a closer look at the art mentioned in the episode and some related highlights in The Met collection. 

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Irving Penn's "The Tarot Reader (Bridget Tichenor and Jean Patchett), New York" with two women in stylist black clothing reading tarot cards with a diagram of a hand behind them