The Budapest Tarot Second Edition by Sullivan Hismans
One of the most exciting events in my twenty years of collecting historic decks occurred in 2017 when Sullivan Hismans (Tarot Sheet Revival.com) introduced the Budapest Tarot. He meticulously recreated a very important fifteenth-century deck that only exists in museum collections as partly damaged uncut sheets of cards. This limited edition of 250 decks sold out quickly and has become a favorite reading deck of the lucky few who own one. Hismans just released another edition of 450 Budapest decks with some changes that I’ll illustrate below. But first, I want to put the deck in its historic context.
The Budapest Deck’s Historic Importance
In the mid-1400s, you could go to the store and buy a pack of cards for playing the popular new game of Trionfi. What did those cards look like? Did they resemble the tarot cards that are familiar to us? We can’t be sure because not a single printed tarot card survives from the mid-15th century. All we have are a handful of gold-covered cards commissioned by wealthy aristocrats. Luxury decks like the Visconti-Sforza prove that by the mid-1400s tarot decks had 78 cards and the same 22 trumps that we have today. But we don’t know how closely these custom decks resembled cards printed for the masses.
Back then, playing cards were printed using wooden blocks resembling large rubber stamps. Cards were printed in sheets of about twenty. A stencil was laid on the sheet for brushing on paint, then the sheets were cut up into individual cards and stacked into a deck. If there was a flaw somewhere, the entire sheet was recycled and often used in book binding. Occasionally, when a restorer disassembles an antique book, a sheet of playing cards will be found glued inside the covers. Many of these sheets made their way into museums and private collections, and are known by the name of the collection where they reside.
The Budapest Sheet
Sheets and stencils related to the Budapest Tarot are found in several collections. The tarot sheets held by the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest are the most significant. They are comprised of all the trump and court cards and the suits of swords and batons. Duplicate sheets printed from the same woodblock were sold to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City in 1922. A private collection in New York owns a small section of one sheet; and the Cary Collection of Playing Cards at Yale University owns another duplicate sheet plus a stencil used to color one of the sheets in the Budapest collection.
Out of the tens of thousands, if not millions, of decks printed in Italy in the 15th century, only a handful of uncut sheets survive. It’s either an extraordinary coincidence that so many examples of cards printed from the same wood blocks were preserved, or this particular deck was very popular.
All the traditional 22 trumps are present, but some cards have slightly different designs. The Bagatto has a crowd of onlookers behind him. The Lovers are a courting couple with Cupid helping things along. The Fool seems like a shamanic figure leading a procession. This deck has one of the most cheerful and life-affirming Sun cards.
After examining the clothing on the court cards, I believe the deck was designed in the 1470s, but some of the clothing styles go back to the very early days of tarot in the 1440s. Playing card designs are very conservative. When one set of wood blocks wore out, designs were often copied onto new blocks. It’s quite possible that this deck transmits vestiges of the earliest days of tarot.
Hismans’ Working Methods
Hismans reproduced the lines of the original woodcuts with pen and paper and digital drawing. Eight trump and court cards are partly missing from the original sheets and had to be hand drawn with pen on paper to complete them. The cups and coins suits no longer exist and were recreated using other sheets of cards in the Budapest collection.
To reproduce the original stenciled colors, Hismans applied paint to paper, photographed it then applied it digitally to the cards. The original yellow has faded to tan, and the red paint shifted toward orange, so Hismans restored the original bright, cheerful colors. The two highest trumps, Justice and World have blue areas that may have been hand-colored. These have been duplicated exactly. The card backgrounds are a photograph of textured paper that recreates the look of hand laid paper.
Differences with first edition
(In all the examples below the 1st edition is on the left with the 2nd edition to the right).
The bright, sunny yellow has shifted to darker and more orange in many cards. You can see it on Death’s horse, shown here, and the lion at the top. Hismans believes this is more balanced and closer to the color tone of the original sheets.
The Emperor on the original sheet is only a fragment and must be redrawn. Hismans’ new version has a sketchier face. He holds his globe and staff in opposite hands and the staff is upright.
The coins and cups suit cards that accompanied the Budapest trump cards no longer exist. For his first edition, Hismans consulted sheets of suit cards in the Budapest museum from the same time period, then used them to create his own version, which was influenced by the French TdM.
For the second edition, Hismans stayed closer to the original sheets. In the suit of coins, 6, 7 and 9 have a different configuration; and the coins are two different sizes in 4 and 5. In the suit of cups, a hand holds the ace chalice. The cups have a different shape, and in 5 and 8 they are distributed differently.
In previous centuries, cards were packaged for sale in heavy paper wrappers printed with ornate designs and the card maker’s name and address. Hismans learned block carving in order to understand how the lines on the cards were made. He uses this skill to carve unique envelopes for each of his decks, paying tribute to the original printers by using designs from their cards. This edition has an entirely new envelope featuring the Sun, Moon and the Fool’s tree branch. The colors are hand stenciled, and each deck is initialed and numbered on the side of the envelope, making it a unique work of art.
The 350 gram card stock is identical to the first edition. The backs are the same, as well as the size (2.75 x 4 inches). The deck shuffles easily and is very usable. Because the trumps have no titles, are numbered differently and the numbers are hard to read, we’re given two cards with a key to the names and numbers. If you’re comfortable reading with the Tarot de Marseille, the Budapest deck makes a fun and intriguing alternative.
About the Artist
Hismans first discovered tarot about age fourteen when he started reading with a Grimaud Tarot de Marseille. This sparked a spiritual quest that led him to read Plato and hermetic and gnostic texts. Now he uses tarot for creative inspiration rather than divination. His current passion is to give new life to forgotten handcrafted decks, and to understand the technical processes involved in block printing and engraving. Ultimately, he would like to create a completely handcrafted deck.
Reading with this deck makes me happy. The colors are a big factor. It’s a friendly, unpretentious deck that would be comfortable in a tavern. It doesn’t take itself seriously like those aristocratic gold decks. I get chills realizing I’m handling a deck that people used 500 years ago; and I’m seeing exactly what they saw. There are only 450 copies, so don’t miss out.
See more photos and order the deck here:
- Private communication with Sullivan Hismans at http://www.TarotSheetRevival.com
- The Budapest Museum of Fine Arts: http://www.PrintsandDrawings.hu
- Kaplan, Stuart R. The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol. I, pp 130-131, Vol. II, pp 271-285
- Many thanks to Iolon at http://www.TarotWheel.net for providing high resolution images of the original sheets
Page of Cups Visits the Author’s Hometown