Marseilles Tarot: Medieval symbology about main colours.


The most ancient reference we have about Marseille's Tarot -not about cartomancy or other deck of cards- comes from 15th century, it may have appeared in the north of Italy and from there it moved through Europe until it arrived to the south of France where it became popular. Gathered under the name of Visconti-Sforza, the different games of the Tarot show a similar representative pattern, while its divinatory use is shown later despite the events such as Worcester's Synod (1240) in which "the dishonourable game of King and Queen" was forbidden for clerks. In this game many have noticed a reference for the Arcana but it also was a reference for chess or other games, focusing on avoiding bets and forgetting the mantic use.

In spite of 1760, when deck printer Nicolas Conver made the design (or modified it) for Marseille's Tarot in the place of the same name, the images of the cards belong to a gothic medieval style, so theorists differ about if their origin was much earlier, if it was an intentional re-creation, or if it is a simple creative license based on repeated and archetypal models from medieval imagery.

The uses for Tarot are even questioned today by the tarot practitioners themselves. While some researchers consider that the meanings are immovable to use them, keeping traditional shapes and thoughts, other think that Tarot must be regarded not as a messenger but as a spiritual guide, this way, Major Arcana and Minor Arcana don't clearly indicate situations or people but invite to reflect about our own worries through evocation of universal symbolism. This illustration was made before by Carl G. Jung. In the majority of researches and practitioners we will find a mixture of both, though.

In the famous model of Nicolas Conver, the basic colours of the deck cards are red, black, yellow, white, flesh tone, green and blue. In others, brown, orange and violet are included only or Minor Arcana as well as golden or pink for more specific versions. Although we must not suspect about any initiation rites intention or magical intention in the first printouts, since they were the colours allowed on the wooden moulds, many consider that in order to achieve the most exact interpretation according to the ancient world, colours must be related with those used on the Middle Ages. Arcana interpretation varies according to which element is under a specific colour. Here we have a group of examples based on Marseille's Tarot of Nicolas Conver but actually, the practical application of the following principles are correct for any similar tarot because the interpretation is based on methods, spreads and additional circumstances (although the first meaning of the Arcana must not be modified by the color-based interpretation). However, since the image was the object seen at first, colour psychology had for sure an important role.

Red: red in Middle Ages was considered a warm colour which resembles fire and passion, love, blood and life. It was related to religion as well since many of the highest-rank clerks wore that colour, ready to bleed like Christ which is an irony since red is associated with hell with the Demon. It was a colour related to power, an idea that came from the Ancient Ages where purple and sometimes scarlet, was meant for emperors, nobles and the military.

If the clothes or part of the character from the card is from this colour, it means an emotional or passionate attitude. In the case of cloaks and shoes, it means a journey and something frivolous or more related to religion or spiritual issues (the Priestess' clothes or the Justice's clothes). In the case of the objects, it will represent a warning for emotional issues, it can be the meaning of the card itself or the domestic use of the object. It does generally have a positive meaning.

Blue: is the opposite colour of red. It represents calm and purity but in Middle Ages it was not a cold colour. It was considered as a calm colour, humble but also noble and religious, leaving this colour for the Celestials and the mantle of the Virgin Mary. It meant serenity and delicateness.

It balances red in all ways. This can be seen on the clothes of the Temperance or the Magician Arcana where spiritual balance is required and also in the Chariot. It is a colour that appoints physical care or reflection about situations. It is not a positive colour because it means superior plans usually out of control for the person who asks.

Yellow: Associated with golden, yellow is sometimes considered to be fake for its lack of value and so it can be put as positive in the case of calling up for gold or negative when it does not, being related with lies and treason -Judas wore this colour-, illness and every kind of digression. It is a decadent colour which even today has not a place in clothes or usual tools. However is a remarkable colour because it calls our attention, so depending on this, the interpretation would change.

When seen on crowns, shields, thrones, cups or coins, its meaning will remain positive. So it does when it represents the Sun, giver of life and light. Blond hair is also identified as celestial but in clothes, yellow represents danger -or an important warning- which is close but not seen, as well as could be in flowers. When it appears on the floor it must be related to brown.

Black:A colour that was parallel to white but no opposite at first. Later it was associated with the night and death, obtaining a bad meaning that actually is very relative since black is a favourable colour and protector against evil spirits. It became a religious and austere colour, in opposition to red. When red had a positive meaning, black would be negative.

In Tarot, black sometimes replaced blue, especially in clothes. However its use is limited to lines of the drawing and shading along some particular details as flower decorations or filling corners. Because of that, black must be a reminder in the Coin of the two sides of the coin itself or even of the fortune itself. In case of decorations for Swords, understood as deep issues or danger situations, black is a warning. But when it appears on specific elements of Major Arcana it has more relevance.

In the Emperor's shield it can mean the enemies or the danger of being a tyrant in a situation of authority. The darkness in the entrances of the left tower that appears on the Moon Arcane in which wolves howl, represents contradiction, the necessary opposite. In the Devil Arcane both the central androgynous figure's horns and the horns of those who are chained to the sides of the picture represent schemes and temptations, but reminding the person who asks that every bad though comes from mind in which evil is intrinsic and inevitable. The black bird that appears on the Star is placed on the left and its wings are opened so it represents the negative issues are vanishing. The Arcane without name or Death always has black ground. But we must remember that this Arcane does not represents a physical situation. Death reaps everything on its sight, however this creates new opportunities such as the grass that grow from that ground. Black has here its most negative meaning and also the most positive one. Some establish that brown could have been used instead of black in this situation.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada -

Translated by: Rachel Black -

-Gage, J., Color and culture: practice and meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction. Univ. of California, 1999
-Jung. C.G., El hombre y sus símbolos, Ed. Planeta, 1995
-Nicholls, S. Jung y el Tarot: un viaje arquetípico. Kairós, 1989
-Pastoreau, M., Breve historia de los colores. Paidós Ibérica, Barcelona, 2006
-Portal, F., El simbolismo de los colores: en la antigüedad, en la edad media y en los tiempos modernos. J. de Olañeta (ed.) 1996

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