The earliest tarot Death cards, like the Visconti di Modrone card shown at the left, can be a bit gruesome—flesh stretched over bones, bits of shroud sticking to flesh, guts exposed. Why? Who wants to see that during a pleasant game of Trionfi with friends on a Saturday afternoon? Actually, this was the hottest trend in 15th century art: a taste for the macabre, a word that refers specifically to rotting corpses and skeletons with flesh attached. Let’s look at how this trend came about, and the art that inspired the tarot cards.
The Black Plague started in 1347 and took an estimated thirty to sixty percent of the European population. Rotting corpses would have been a common sight when the living couldn’t keep up with burials, and entire families were walled up in their houses and left to die to avoid infecting their neighbors. The obsession with rotting bodies was a way of dealing with the trauma. This artistic trend culminated in the early- to mid-fifteenth century, the same time tarot was invented; and a time when medieval culture was transitioning into a humanistic appreciation of the individual. Emphasis shifted from death as a release from this sinful world to death as the end of the individual personality, significant relationships, and enjoyment of the good things in life.
Lively skeletons covered with rotting flesh have flourished in European folklore since pre-Christian times. The more recently one died, and the more flesh on one’s bones, the more energy the corpse had for returning to haunt the living. Death was a gradual process. You weren’t completely dead until all your flesh had decomposed and only a dry skeleton was left. Until then, interaction with the living was always a possibility. The best way to put a troublesome visitor to rest was to burn the body down to ash and dry bones. (Caciola Chapter 5)
The macabre in art was so popular that rotting corpses were often inserted where you didn’t expect them. This illustration, from a manuscript of St. Augustine’s City of God, illuminated in the 1380s, shows Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with a rotting corpse lying on the ground. Although there is no mention of a stray corpse in the biblical story, nor in any folklore about the Garden of Eden, it probably symbolizes how Adam’s sin caused humans to lose their immortality. The gray skin stretched taught over the skeleton is similar to the Visconti-Sforza Death card.
The Three Living and the Three Dead is a literary theme that predates the plague. It first appeared in the late 13th century and became increasingly popular in visual art throughout the 14th and early 15th centuries. According to the story, three noblemen who went out hunting in the forest encounter three rather lively corpses in three stages of decomposition. The corpses utter a popular medieval meme: “What you are, we once were; what we are, you will become”. This illustration shows a twist on the story. A pope, a bishop and a king confront three corpses who mock them by wearing the same headgear.
This brings us to another obsession in late medieval art—death carrying away all ranks of people.
Aristocrats, church officials and other members of the elite worked hard to maintain a mystique that set them apart from ordinary humans. The Black Plague was an eye-opener for common people when they learned that kings, bishops, and princes were dying the same miserable death, covered in buboes, as any peasant. Images of Death carrying away all ranks of people, from the emperor on his throne to the laborer in his workshop, were extremely popular in the 15th century.
In this illustration, Death aims his arrow at a tree whose fruit is all ranks of people arranged in the traditional three estates: the ruling class of emperor, nobles and knights at the top; the pope, and other church officials in the middle; and the working class at bottom.
The Dance of Death (Danse Macabre) showing death carrying off all types of people, appears in numerous late-medieval frescoes, easel paintings, and book illustrations.
Lively skeletons, with flesh still attached to the bones and internal organs exposed, take the hands of people from all ranks of life: Merchant, scholar, bishop, cardinal, king. The first Danse Macabre depiction we know of was painted in 1424 on the wall of La Cimetière des Innocents in Paris, where Death says “You who live, it is certain that, however long delayed, you will dance”. Wall frescoes of the Dance of Death illustrated actual performances staged in cemeteries. An actor in a body suit painted with skeleton bones would pop out of the charnel house and dance away with actors dressed as the various ranks of society, from pope to laborer.
A game of Trionfi/Tarocchi becomes a Dance of Death when the Death card is played.
In this four-player Trionfi hand, played with the Visconti-Sforza deck, the first player led off with the 6 of Cups. The next player had no cups in his hand so he played the Pope trump card, hoping that everyone else would have cups and he could take the trick by default. Bad luck! The third player is also out of cups so he plays the Death card. The fourth player sacrifices his lowest cup card. Death waltzes off the table with the Pope, and the card game imitates art.
Arrows were associated with the plague, since death from the plague came swiftly and unexpectedly, like an arrow flying silently through the air. People prayed to Saint Sebastian, who was martyred by being pierced with arrows, for protection from the plague. The only tarot deck to show death with a bow and arrow is the Visconti-Sforza (see the photo in the previous paragraph). In this fresco, Death aims her arrow at two unsuspecting young people. Youths who had not yet acquired immunity were especially susceptible to infestations of the plague.
The illustration above shows two other important themes that appear in Tarot: death as the Grim Reaper, and death on horseback.
Death as the Grim Reaper, mowing down people as if harvesting wheat, appeared in art after the plague. In the illustration above left, the Grim Reaper has a scythe and arrows, indicating that the plague is responsible for the death of the victims on the ground.
The Grim Reaper image is related to the many medieval calendars, almanacs and astrological treatises that show the labors of each season. The peasant reaping wheat with his scythe brings to mind the Greek agricultural god Cronus who eventually became conflated with Chronos, Old Man Time, with his hourglass and his scythe that brought life to an end.
The walking Grim Reaper wielding a scythe doesn’t appear in a tarot deck until the Tarot de Marseille pattern emerged in the mid-17th century. The J-P Laurent card above right is a typical Tarot de Marseille Death card that remains the standard image today. The Grim Reaper with his bloody scythe mows down body parts as if they were grain. But the image is ambiguous. Hands seem to be sprouting from the ground like plants. This may be a new generation springing up after the old is cleared away—a promise of renewal and regrowth after the harvest.
The Grim Reaper on horseback trampling different types of people was the most popular depiction of death on tarot cards during the 15th century. The image comes from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Bible. The Book of Revelations, Chapter 6 verse 8, says, “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”
The Charles VI card above left combines the apocalypse theme with the Grim Reaper mowing down various ranks of people with his scythe. The Rosenwald card is a simplified version of the same theme. Bolognese tarot (above right) has preserved some of the earliest tarot images. Except for these early cards, Death on horseback does not reappear in tarot outside Italy until the Waite Smith deck of 1909.
The skeleton in 15th-century Italian decks is actively killing people. Like the plague, he was an agent of death. It’s difficult for us to appreciate how the original owners of these decks saw this card. This was a time when over half of all children died before they reached adulthood; when mothers rarely reached age thirty due to childbirth complications; and when lives were constantly being disrupted because parents, lovers and business partners would suddenly die from inexplicable causes.
By the end of the 15th century, the Renaissance was well underway and attitudes toward portraying death were changing. Flesh over bones and exposed innards were replaced by generic skeletons. The Church began actively repressing superstitious folklore, while emphasizing the official teaching that at death the soul separates from the body with no possibility of return. If you see a ghost, a living skeleton or a dead relative, it has to be a demon. At the same time, death was becoming medicalized as the moment the heartbeat and breathing stopped. There was no longer a place for a transitional after-life state, nor for lively skeletons dancing in graveyards. But the Grim Reaper persisted in popular folklore, and he maintained his position in the tarot deck, as in this Death card from an 1801 deck by J. Joerger.
By the 18th century, when cartomancy books became popular, the concept of death as transformation, rather than an absolute end, was firmly in place. The fortune-teller Etteilla’s cartomancy books had an enormous influence on how the cards are interpreted. His exceptionally negative interpretation of the Death card may have come from a lost oral tradition. He said this card was about the failure of projects and the loss of hope, as well as corruption, putrefaction and destruction. Evidently, no one paid attention to him. Authors in the Tarot de Marseille tradition are unanimous in saying death means the end of something that needs to end anyway. Being pared to the bone implies elimination of unnecessary baggage; and it carries with it the hope of a new beginning.
French occultists like Eliphas Levi and Oswald Wirth stayed with the Tarot de Marseille imagery while doubling down on the “death as transformation” theme. The occultists said Death promotes life by clearing away what is old, worn out and ready to be disposed of, so something new and better can take its place. The heads and hands sticking out of the ground tell us our ideas and our deeds will live on after our death.
The Waite Smith Death card returns to late medieval imagery by showing Death on a horse trampling various ranks of people. A king lies dead on the ground, his crown under the horse’s hoof. A bishop begs Death for another chance at life. The woman is either fainting or turning away in denial, while the innocent child seems curious about what’s happening. Waite tells us the Hanged Man is mystical death while this card describes physical death.
Symbolism of the Rosicrucians, Freemasons and Knights Templar fill the card, most prominently the white rose on the flag. The New Jerusalem silhouetted against the rising sun is the promise of eternal life at the end of the mystical journey. The stream coming from the Garden of Eden demonstrates the eternal circulation of energy: water evaporates, becomes clouds, then condenses into rain and flows into the stream again. The skeleton in armor is borrowed from an etching by Albrecht Durer.
Here are some 20th century decks that portray the traditional themes of this card in creative ways.
The Grim Reaper of the Robin Wood deck wears a blood red robe representing life. Instead of a scythe, he carries a black flag with the white rose of freedom. The birch trees and violets tell us it’s spring, the time for renewal and new life. Death blocks the way forward. An era is ending and it’s impossible to continue on the same path. Death points to a new path and a yellow butterfly will show the way. We don’t need a major crisis to point us to a new path; it only requires listening to the quiet intuitive voice within.
The Voyager Death card is rather melancholy. In the lower left, a falling leaf, shed snake skin, and a heron eating a crayfish are all symbols of a natural end to life. The mask’s knife-like nose reminds us that some things need to be consciously cut away. The lone figure is a statue by Augustus Saint Gaudens, commonly known as Grief, that rests in a cemetery in Washington, D.C. Behind it, a river snakes its way to the ocean where it will lose its separate identity. According to the deck creator, the card’s message is that awareness of the inevitability of death can encourage us to live more fully in the moment.
The reindeer skull of the Greenwood deck is being picked clean by ravens. The card delivers a harsh message: Life will inevitably strip us to the bone and leave us without our usual defenses and denials. This card isn’t about physical death, but the inner experience of being stripped of all illusions.
Whether it’s lively dancing skeletons, severed heads emerging from the earth, or a fully clothed Grim Reaper pointing the way forward, this card has always implied that death clears the way for renewal. Trump number 13 is a little more than half-way through our journey. There is much more to experience after passing through the threshold of the Death card.
See more cards and art at https://www.tarotwheel.net/history/the%20individual%20trump%20cards/la%20morte.html
Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Boase, T. S. R. Death in the Middle Ages: Mortality, Judgment and Remembrance. New York: McGraw Hill, 1972.
Caciola, Nancy Mandeville. Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages. Cornell U. Press: 2016.
Huson, Paul. Mystical Origins of the Tarot. Vermont: Destiny Books, 2004.
- Tarocchi Visconti di Modrone XV Century, c. 1441. Facsimile by Il Meneghello, Milan, 2015. Collection of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
- Plague Victims in Perugia, illustrated manuscript La Franceschina, Italian, 16th
- Tree of Knowledge, Adam, Eve, Serpent and Corpse. Illustrated manuscript of City of God, St. Augustine, 1380s.
- I Tarocchi dei Visconti. Milan c. 1450. Reproduced by Il Meneghello, Milan, 1996.
- Three Living and Three Dead. Book of Hours, France, 1480s, Harly MS 2917, British Museum.
- Tree of Estates Attacked by Death. Zimmersmacher Totentaz, c. 1575.
- Danse Macabre, 16th century, Regional Museum of Koper
- Visconti Tarots. Restored by A. A. Atanassov. Lo Scarabeo, 2021.
- Fresco, Church of San Francesco, Lucignano, Italy. Bartolo di Fredi, 1360s.
- Grim Reaper. de Vauce Hours, Jean Fouquet, c. 1460.
- The Grain Harvest. French Book of Hours, c. 1475.
- Tarot de Jean-Pierre Laurent, 1735. Restored by Yves Reynaud, 2020
- Palermo Apocalypse. Fresco Pallazo Sclafani, Palermo 1448.
- Tarocchi Charles VI, c. 1460. Collection of Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
- The Rosenwald Deck, c. 1475. Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
- Tarocco Bolognese Al Mondo. Mid 18th Collection of the British Museum.
- Tarot de Jacob Joerger, 1801. Restored by Yves Reynaud, 2020.
- Oswald Wirth Tarot, 1887. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
- The Centennial Waite Smith Tarot Deck. London, 1909. U.S. Games System, Inc., Stamford, CT, 2009.
- The Robin Wood Tarot. Robin Wood. Llewellyn Publications, 1991
- Voyager Tarot. James Wanless. California:Merrill-West, 1986.
- Greenwood Tarot. Chesca Potter & Mark Ryan. 1996.