Every card represents an aspect of humanity that has echoed through time. In this series we are going to dive into the history of the imagery found within the tarot, the meaning of the cards and how that meaning changed over time, and the symbols present within the images of what is arguably the most well-known tarot deck of all time - the Rider-Waite (Smith) Tarot Deck. So, grab your favorite RWS deck, a cup of tea or coffee, and join me live on Sunday mornings over on YouTube as we Deep Dive into each one of the 21 Major Arcana cards continuing now with the final of the 21 Major Arcanum - The World.
Throughout this exploration of the Major Arcanum we have seen how art history shaped and formed the images we are so familiar with within the cards. The World is no different, borrowing from centuries of religious iconography, symbolism, and artistic tradition. As we look to the oldest surviving examples of this card we yet again see imagery common for the time. In the Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards we a woman floating on clouds above a depiction of early renaissance Italian city states. The figure - likely a representation of Sophia - may have been, in my opinion, modeled after Bianca Maria Visconti as it was very common in the period for nobles to model their images in the fashion of religious iconography. You can even see in this portrait of painted by Bonifacio Bembo, who is commonly attributed as the creator of the Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards, how she is depicted in the classical Madonna and Child composition.
In the period Sophia was a commonly used depiction for the feminine personification of divine wisdom as Holy Wisdom or Ἁγία Σοφία 'Hagia Sophia' - the namesake of the beautiful Byzantine period church that now is a Mosque in the heart of Istanbul. Sophia as a figure and idea has its roots in Hellenistic philiosphy, Platonism, Gnosticsm, and Christian theology. The word Sophia or sophós in Greek translates to clever, skillful, intelligent, or wise. In early Christian art we often see Sophia depicted in the same scene along side Christ, as we do in this Icon dated from 1548 entitled 'wisdom hath built her house' or as we do in the second icon dated to the 16th century from the church of St. George in Vologda entitled Icon of Holy Wisdom. Wisdom being the last of the four cardinal virtues yet to be represented within the tarot in our discussions thus far.
You can see in these depictions the similarities found in the final card in the Visconti-Sforza Tarot that is actually untitled. In each instance Sophia is presented in the heavens or above mortals with scepter or in hand, also a traditional way of representing the cardinal virtue Wisdom. Another visual tradition that uses this iconography and symbolism can be found within alchemical texts were we often see Sophia, or Wisdom, as a personification of the sacred marriage or the union of opposites within The Great Work
In the early French tradition of the cards we see iconography directly related to a early Christian iconic composition known as 'Christ in Majesty'. This composition traditionally depicts Christ enthroned as the ruler of all often ensconced within a mandorla, a pointed oval or almond shape used to represent an a glowing aura around holy figures. This symbol has its roots within sacred geometry know as the vesica piscis - the meeting of heaven and earth, union of masculine and feminine, and the origin for the popular Christian fish symbol today that actually has its origins in early Christian ossuaries and tombs. This classic composition surely looks familiar to those who study Tarot, and likely is what informed the earliest depictions of this card in the Marsielles tradition such as the Jean Dodal Tarot from the early 1700s. Christ is also surrounded by four figures in this composition, the same four we see in the the Tarot. These three animals and angelic figure are representative of the four evangelists, which we will discuss more below when we decode the symbols on the card.
In terms of the Tarot the image on The World card underwent little evolution over the years, with some outlier examples. As we discussed above, historically this card drew on the longstanding depictions of Sophia and Christ in Majesty, and as time went on we can see how these figures were used interchangeably on this card, but predominately staying true to the Christ in Majesty composition that we see adopted by the French tradition that Waite/Smith and Crowley/Harris drew from. We do see some outliers here and there such as Mercury taking center stage in the Tarot of Bologna from the 1600s, but the majority of the cards follow the traditional composition. Francois Chosson was the first to depict a woman in the French tradition, though we are unsure as to why, and this stayed as the choice for many decks through to the modern period.
Evolution of Meaning
De Mellet (1781): The World. The universe, represented by Isis and the four seasons.
Levi (1855): The Hebrew letter Tau. Kether or the kabbalistic Crown: in the middle of the Crown is Truth holding a rod in each hand. The microcosm, the sum of it all.
Mathers (1888): The Universe. Completion, good reward.
Golden Dawn (1896): The Great One of the Night of Time. Universe. The matter itself. Synthesis. World. Kingdom. Usually denotes the actual subject of the question, and it there fore depends entirely on the accompany cards.
Waite (1910): The World. One of the worst explanations concerned it is that the figure symbolized the Magus when he has reached the highest degree of initiation. Assured success, recompense, voyage, rout, emigration, flight, change of place.
Crowley (1944): The Universe. The image of the Universe in this sense is accordingly that of a maiden, the final letter of Tetragrammaton. In the present card she is represented as a dancing figure. In her hands she manipulates the radiant spiral force, the active and passive, each possessing its dual polarity. The Universe, so states the theme, is the Celebration of the Great Work accomplished. In the corners of the card are the four Kerubim showing the established Universe; and about her is an ellipse composed of seventy- two circles for the quinaries of the Zodiac, the Shemhamphorasch. In the centre of the lower part of the card is represented the skeleton plan of the building of the house of Matter. It shews the ninety-two known chemical elements, arranged according to their rank in the hierarchy. In the centre, a wheel of Light initiates the form of the Tree of Life, shewing the ten principal bodies of the solar system. But this Tree is not visible except to those of wholly pure heart.
A note to the reader: I have omitted the usual close up detail images of the card and instead offer you the card itself as the details and symbols of this card really make up the whole of this arcanum.
The figure here is a representation of Sophia, Divine Wisdom, the alchemical representation of the union of opposites. The purple sash can have many meanings such has her royal or ascended status, though the inclusion here is unclear. Her nakedness representing purity.
The wreath is another representation of a mandorla and vesica piscis. Wreaths are historically symbols of glory, power, and eternity. In Greco-Roman times they often were made of myrtle and ivy and various symbolic flowers and plants. The red ribbon as a lemniscate a node to the eternal nature of this wisdom. Interestingly according to Paul Christian the wreath should be roses - a traditional symbol of both Sophia and Christ. A clear indication of diverging ideas between Waite and Smith.
The Four Portraits
The four portraits at each corner of the card are taken directly from the historic composition of Christ in Majesty. Each represents the four living creatures of the apocalypse (the four horseman) and the four evangelists; Matthew is the Man; Mark is the Lion; Luke is the Calf and John is the Eagle.
The Dual Wands
The inclusion of the dual wands here is likely a nod to the traditional depiction of Christ or Sophia with a scepter combined with the idea of mastery of both heaven and earth. We see an identical wand held by The Magus. Though the inclusion of two wands here is truthfuly unclear and Waite offer nothing in Pictorial Key to clarity.
As always be sure to check out our live discussion on this very topic over on YouTube:
Barbier, L. (2021). Tarot and divination cards: A visual archive. Cernunnos, 2021.
Butler, B. Dictionary of the Tarot. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.
Chang, T. Susan. Tarot Correspondences: Ancient Secrets for Everyday Readers. Llewellyn Pulbications, 2018.
Crowley, Aleister (aleister Crowley). Book of Thoth - (Egyptian Tarot). Red Wheel/Weiser, 2017.
Dean, Liz. The Ultimate Guide to Tarot: a Beginners Guide to the Cards, Spreads, and Revealing the Mystery of the Tarot. Fair Winds Press, 2015.
Decker, Ronald; Dummett, Michael. A History of the Occult Tarot. London: Duckworth, 2019.
Farley, Helen. A Cultural History of Tarot: From Entertainment to Esotericism. Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.
Fiebig, Johannes, and Evelin Burger. The Ultimate Guide to the Rider Waite Tarot. Llewellyn, 2013.
Gardner, H., Kleiner, F. S., & Mamiya, C. J. (2005). Gardner’s Art through ages 12th edition (2005). Thomson/Wadsworth.
Katz, Marcus. Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot: the True Story of the Worlds Most Popular Tarot: with Previously Unseen Photography & Text from Waite & Smith. Llewellyn Publications, 2015.
Place, R. M. The fool's journey: The history, art, & symbolism of the tarot. York, 2010.
Waite, A. E. Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Dover Publications Inc, 2005.
Wen, Benebell. Holistic Tarot. North Atlantic Books, 2015.