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The Da Vinci Tarot: Breaking the Code

This article was written by Mark McElroy
posted under Tarot

Leonardo da Vinci didn’t play by the rules.

He accepted commissions he never finished. He invented machines so advanced, the technology of his day couldn’t produce them. He completed masterpieces—like The Last Supper—using untested and unstable techniques.

Like its namesake, the Da Vinci Tarot doesn’t play by the rules. And, like its namesake, this deck will delight some, and challenge others.

A Different Voice
Right up front: the Da Vinci Tarot isn’t your grandma’s Rider-Waite deck. Instead of merely redrawing Pamela Coleman Smith’s influential images in Da Vinci's style, Iassen Ghiuselev and Atanas Atanassov (the artists for this deck) decided to illustrate these cards with elements, ideas, and symbols adapted from Da Vinci’s work.

This can be disconcerting at first, especially for those who expect to see three dancing Mona Lisas on the Da Vinci Tarot's Three of Cups. But if we can move beyond such expectations—if we can open ourselves to new experiences, innovative approaches, and fresh interpretations of familiar themes—the Da Vinci Tarot’s haunting images will inspire insights that more familiar decks cannot.

A Different Kind of Beauty
here are thousands of Tarot decks on the market, and no two are quite alike. The overwhelming trend in recent times is to make decks as vibrant and colorful as possible. And there’s no denying that many of these decks—like The Gilded Tarot, with its luminescent surfaces and gossamer fabrics, or even the Medieval Enchantment Tarot, with its warm pastels—are some of the most beautiful ever created.

By comparison, the Da Vinci Tarot’s illustrations can appear, especially at first glance, monochromatic. (Try it yourself. Put the Da Vinci Chariot in a line-up with, say, the Chariot from the Quest Tarot or the Advancement card from the Bright Idea Deck. If these cards were people, which ones would you notice first at a party?)

Given time and attention, though, the Da Vinci Tarot cards pulse with energy. Notice the play of light and shadow. See how the use of chiaroscuro—a subtle shading technique typical of Leonardo’s own work—makes the flat images appear almost three dimensional. Color is employed here, but cleverly, with reservation and purpose, and in ways that always enhance meaning.

A Different Kind of Companion Book
Given the popularity of the The Da Vinci Code book and movie—and knowing that this deck has been licensed to appear in that film—I was aware this deck might well become the first Tarot pack curious fans might purchase. With that in mind, I wanted to include features of interest to people with potentially very limited exposure to either Leonardo's work, or the Tarot, or both.

I'm proud, then, that the companion guide recaps Leonardo's life, carefully differentiating between fact and Da Vinci Code-inspired fantasy. It was important to me to share the news that Tarot has more in common with northern Italy in the fifteenth century than it ever will with Egypt, Atlantis, or Lemuria. For educational reasons, I wanted the divinatory text to reveal the sources for each image; for ease of use, I wanted to include exploration and application questions for every card.

In trying to honor the unique voice and vision of this deck, I also thought it was important for divinatory meanings to reflect the themes and illustrations found only in the Da Vinci Tarot. As a result, the deck's divinatory meanings don't always march in lock-step with assignments made in other books and decks. In my experience, this enhances the deck's appeal for those who, like Leonardo, think of conventions as little more than suggestions—and who are comfortable walking to the beat of a different drummer.

A Different Kind of Appeal.

There are, as they say, different strokes for different folks. You wouldn't hand a child the Tarot of Cassanova. A Christian may not fully appreciate the Pagan Tarot. Not every deck is for everyone ... and the Da Vinci Tarot is no exception to this rule.

That said: this deck is a delight for those who are just as intrigued with Da Vinci’s work as they are with the Tarot. There is dark humor at work in the artist’s choice of Leonardo’s bat-winged flying machine as the image for The Fool. The Mona Lisa has long been associated with themes of secrecy (Why is she smiling?) and gender (Is she, in fact, a transsexual portrait of Leonardo himself?). There's delicious irony, then, in presenting her as the High Priestess—a card associated with everything from carefully guarded secrets to the medieval legend of the cross-dressing Pope Joan.

This is also a great deck for “puzzle people”—folks who are engaged and excited by the unfamiliar. Who is that almost-naked guy on Trump I—The Magician? Jesus? John the Baptist? Bacchus? And how might each of these identities—or even the historical controversy associated with the original work—enhance our experience of the Magician trump?

And who is that on the Four of Chalices? A disciple? Which one? And why was he selected for this particular card? The answers aren’t always obvious—but finding them enhances our appreciation for Leonardo’s work, and our insights into the meaning of each card.

A Different Kind of Utility
Tarot decks fulfill many purposes these days, serving as everything from brainstorming cues to magickal tools. Because it honors the structure and themes of traditional Tarot, the Da Vinci Tarot supports all these applications, but thanks to the nature of its artwork, it offers dedicated students something no other deck can.

Other decks have clipped elements from Da Vinci’s works and placed them on Tarot cards. In the Da Vinci Tarot, though, these elements have been integrated into engaging, fanciful illustrations. While these can be appreciated in their own right, they also pose a challenge. How many original works have been adapted for use in each card ... and from which original works do these elements come?

Seen in this way, the Da Vinci Tarot becomes an engaging educational game. Finding and naming the sources takes us on a voyage of discovery that builds appreciation for the Master's work ... and for the cleverness and innovative spirit of the deck itself.

Just as the paintings of the Great Masters reward careful study, the cards in the Da Vinci Tarot reveal their deepest secrets only after some investment of time and attention. For those who are after quick, two-minute insights into their next career move, working with the Da Vinci Tarot is more likely to be frustrating than fruitful.

Everything about this deck, from its subtle color scheme to the visual depth of its illustrations, points to the importance of a meditative approach. A gesture, a posture, or the placement of a hand can speak volumes. Identifying the characters and machinery in the pictures can produce insights a casual glance will never betray. Contemplating the landscapes and settings can suggest anything from a possible course of action to a badly needed change in attitude.

In a world obsessed with instant insight, the Da Vinci Tarot reminds us that some of life's most valued lessons are best learned when the mind is open and still.

Here's hoping your own exploration of the deck boosts your creativity, stokes your imagination, and empowers you to tap into the unique genius of your own inner Leonardo.

Mark McElroyMark McElroy
After purchasing his first Tarot deck in 1973, Mark McElroy began terrorizing other neighborhood nine-year-olds with dire and dramatic predictions.Today, he calls Tarot "the ultimate visual brainstorming tool," and shares techniques designed to help...  Read more


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