L’Appeso/Le Pendu/The Hanged Man
A well-dressed man hanging upside down by one foot and wearing a detached expression on his face. For us, this is a very puzzling and enigmatic figure. But if we had lived in an Italian town during the renaissance, we would have seen these inverted hanging men every day while going about our business in the city center. As with many tarot images, we only need to look at the popular culture of fifteenth-century Italy to understand the card.
During the fifteenth century, the Hanged Man card was known as either the Traitor (Il Traditore) or the Hanged Man (L’Impicatto). In France after 1500, it was known only as Le Pendu (Hanged Man). When tarot production returned to Italy a few centuries later, the name was translated back into Italian as L’Appeso (Hanging Man), the name seen on all Italian cards today.
Let’s take a tour to visit some hanged men before we learn how their stories changed once they became detached from Italian culture and given a spiritual interpretation.
The tarot Hanged Man is a representation of the Pitture Infamanti, “shame paintings”, that were painted in public areas of Italian cities during the renaissance. Traitors who skipped town and couldn’t be executed in person were hung in effigy as paintings on the walls of public buildings. These images didn’t survive long as they were exposed to the weather. All we have are a few preliminary chalk drawings by Andrea del Sarto, and an ink drawing in a book by Filippino Lippi. Both were prominent Florentine artists of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century.
Shame paintings were usually commissioned by the heads of Italian city-states to get revenge on those who betrayed them. They hired the best artists of their time to make a recognizable portrait of the traitor contorted in agony, with a caption identifying him and his crime. Shown here is a rare image of a shame painting being created in the 18th century. The man on the scaffold is painting a hanged man on the wall of the Bargello, Florence’s communal administrative building.
The Medici of Florence commissioned most of the shame-paintings in their town. They were the wealthiest family in Europe and dominated Florentine politics, which naturally created jealousy and periodic rebellions. When the Medici prevailed over the rebels, they hired the top Florentine artists to create Pitture Infamanti of the traitors they couldn’t catch and execute. Artist Andrea del Castagno did so many shame paintings that he was known as Andrea degli Impiccati (Andy of the Hanged Men). Botticelli, the most famous painter of his time, was hired by Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1478 to create shame paintings of the Pazzi family after they killed Lorenzo’s brother during a failed rebellion.
Popes were enthusiastic patrons of Pitture Infamanti. Pope Pius II nursed an irrational hatred for the lord of Rimini, Sigismondo Malatesta; officially condemning him to hell for eternity, burning him in effigy, then ordering a shame painting. This was placed on the side of a Roman bridge with a banner issuing from Sigismondo’s mouth saying, “I am Sigismondo Malatesta, son of Pandolfo, king of traitors, dangerous to God and men, condemned to fire by vote of the holy senate.” (Welch)
Muzio Attendolo, father of Francesco Sforza, the future Duke of Milan, was a minor nobleman and a much-decorated condottiero (head of a mercenary army). In 1409, he hired his army out to Pope Gregory XII for the ongoing war between the Papal States and the Kingdom of Naples. The Pope was slow to pay his fee, so Attendolo switched sides, not an uncommon move for a mercenary. The Pope ordered a shame painting of Attendolo with the caption, “I am Sforza, peasant of Cotignola and traitor. I have betrayed the Church twelve times, against my honor. I have broken promises, treaties and pacts. (Kaplan).
It seems the number twelve has a connection to the Hanged Man as traitor. Attendolo betrayed the church twelve times. Judas was the twelfth disciple. The upright posts of the Tarot de Marseille gibbet have twelve red stubs where branches have been lopped off. The number was undoubtedly chosen for its symbolic value.
The city of Milan and the Sforza dukes have a long history with shame paintings.
Early in Francesco Sforza’s career, when he was a condottiero fighting to retain his holdings in Le Marche, he ordered shame paintings to be posted on Cremona’s tower of two captains who defected to the enemy. (De Gregory).
In1458, several years after becoming duke of Milan, Sforza became very annoyed at a priest who had left Milan without permission and was slow to return. Sforza declared that if the priest didn’t return immediately, he would order one of the walls of the great hall in the castle to be white-washed so a shame painting could be placed there. (Welch)
In the late 1490s, with the French menacing northern Italy, Duke Ludovico Sforza had more than one opportunity to order shame paintings of military men who were secretly working for the French. (Welch)
Hanged men appeared in other places than public shame paintings. The most gruesome hanged men can still be seen in Bologna. When the head of the Bolognini family commissioned a fresco of Hell in 1410 for the family chapel in the Basilica di San Petronio, he told the artist to make it as horrible as possible. The artist, Giovanni da Modena, delivered a grotesque scene centered on a man-eating Devil. Near the upper edge, two men hang upside down, labeled “Idolators” and “Ninusrex”, a reference to the founder of the city of Nineveh, a hotbed of pagan idolatry. Idolators are the ultimate traitors against God because they worship false images, that is, images not approved by the Church. (Vitali, 2010)
A very similar vision of Hell with nearly identical hanged men forms part of a Last Judgment fresco painted by Giotto in the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel of Padua a few years before the Bolognini chapel was decorated with visions of Hell.
Here are some miscellaneous examples showing how the hanged man was assumed to be a traitor in the renaissance imagination.
A fortune telling book, Trionpho di Fortuna by Sigismondo Fanti, published in Venice in 1527, depicts a hanged man in the center of a horoscope. The lines under it read: “If you are inhuman, or traitor to Lords, or relatives in fact or in work, if you are without any respect, without reason, then I see you end your days in the air. (Posted to Aeclectic December 2008, by Michael J. Hurst)
Francesco Piscina from the Piedmont region of Italy wrote a discourse about 1565 on the moral lessons to be found in tarot. He describes the Hanged Man as “dishonest, false vicious, pestiferous…” At the same time, in central Italy, an anonymous author wrote a moralizing discourse on tarot where he referred to this card as the Traitor. (Caldwell)
In Bologna, a one-page manuscript dated about 1750 was discovered by the researcher Franco Pratesi in the library of the University of Bologna. It lists 35 cards of a shortened Tarocco Bolognese deck with meanings presumably used by fortune tellers. The Hanged Man is listed with the alternate name of Traitor and its divinatory meaning is “betrayal”. (Wicked Pack p. 49)
In a Tarocchino deck commissioned by a wealthy Bolognese family about 1665 and engraved by Giuseppe Mitelli, the artist used a murderer instead of a hanged man to symbolize a traitor. This scenario depicts the ultimate betrayal of a friendship. Since no other tarot deck has a scene like this, the card might depict an incident that involved the family who commissioned the deck.
Shame paintings depicted the victim writhing in agony; yet the tarot card usually shows him serene and detached. The image may have been sanitized since the disturbing sight of a hanged man in agony would have dampened the atmosphere around the card table.
Tortured and martyred saints maintain their serenity because they have transcended the human condition. An example is St. Peter Martyr who appears unfazed by the scimitar embedded in his skull. Serene hanged men set the stage for the nineteenth-century spiritualized hanged man, passively surrendering to God’s will.
If you ask a Christian who the worst traitor in history is, they will probably tell you it was Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver. Some early Italian cards, like those in the Rothschild and Rosenwald sheets, show the hanged man holding bags of money, which has been interpreted as a reference to Judas. But he might also be a dishonest banker, or the mercenary soldier who switches sides depending on who’s offering the most money. The card shown here was gilded and hand painted for an Italian aristocrat and could reasonably represent any of these interpretations.
Hanged Men in distress appear in a few tarot decks, like the Tarot de Marseille Type I and some Piemontese and Lombardy decks. In the Noblet tarot and other cards in the TdM type I pattern, the fingers sticking up over his shoulders can only happen if his arms have been broken. Milanese decks based on Della Rocca’s engravings have the most dramatic hanged men, echoing the 16th century drawing by del Sarto near the top of this article.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, some card printers turned the Hanged Man right side up. Antoine Court de Gébelin, the first person we know of to write about esoteric tarot, said that card makers show their ignorance when they print the hanged man upside-down. He tells us the hanged man is the cardinal virtue Prudence, even though this figure has none of the classic attributes of Prudence. Authors who say this card means wisdom and discernment are looking back to this attribution. The upright Hanged Man made his way into the Rouen-Bruxelles card pattern, like the Vandenborre card shown here, that was preceded by the 17th century Jacques Vievil tarot. As in the early TdM I style, the Hanged Man’s fingers stick up over the shoulders. (Vitali and Zanetti)
France did not have a tradition of shame paintings, so the average French card player was probably ignorant of the card’s original meaning, and furthermore, not curious about it. Le Pendu, and the later Italian name L’Apesso, refer to the fact that he’s hanging, but not necessarily a criminal. For card players, all that matters is where the card stands in the hierarchy of the trump series – what cards it can capture, and who it can be captured by. This lack of cultural context meant the Hanged Man card was a blank slate, ready to be re-imagined by eighteenth-century occultists.
Here is the standard Tarot de Marseille card that was the basis for all future variants. The Hanged Man’s hands are tied behind his back and his jacket is divided into quadrants. His face is serene. The side posts of the gibbet are tree trunks with six red scars where branches were lopped off.
Traditional Divinatory Meanings
We have very little evidence for how tarot was interpreted for fortune telling in the 15th and 16th centuries; but it’s clear that the Hanged Man card was considered a traitor. Some card meanings relating to this theme are: betrayal of trust, betraying a friend, abandoning plans, and selling out. Your world has been turned upside-down and nothing can be relied on. It’s about switching allegiances and changing your viewpoint. Your betrayal may have resulted in social humiliation, shame, loss of status, torture and a violent death.
French Occult Tarot
French occultists de Gébelin and Etteilla in the eighteenth century, and Oswald Wirth a century later, introduced the Hanged Man as a spiritual seeker who has reached a turning point on his life path. Trumps one through eleven describe the active life of testing your own powers and learning self-mastery, culminating in the Strength card. The Hanged Man inverts these worldly values and surrenders to a higher power. He lets go of the past, reorients his thinking around a different set of values, and shifts his life direction radically. The Hanged Man is no longer of this world; he has transcended the human condition. His body is helpless but his soul is free and emanates great spiritual power.
Every detail of Wirth’s card is selected to convey transcendent detachment.
Those aren’t gold coins falling from the blue and white bags tucked under his arms. They are his spiritual and intellectual treasures that he’s sharing with the world. The upright posts of the gibbet resemble the High Priestess’s pillars. The blue of religious devotion fades into green as dogmatic religion evolves to become more vital and free.
The red and white tunic tells us he is actively practicing self-denial while surrendering passively to his intuition. The tunic has two red buttons referring to the active mystical life of the High Priestess, while the four white buttons tell us the Emperor has surrendered his personal will in order to do the will of the higher power he serves. On the same theme, the waxing and waning moons on his pockets symbolize the active self-denial of the mystic, and the intuitive faculty that gathers impressions and interprets them.
Occultists found significance in the geometric structure of the image. The Hanged Man’s body makes an inverted triangle topped by a cross, the alchemical sign of accomplishing the Great Work. The gibbet resembles the Hebrew letter Tau, last letter of the alphabet, also signifying accomplishment and completion. Eliphas Levi associated him with Judas, but also Prometheus being eternally punished for betraying the gods and giving fire to humanity.
French occultists assigned the Hebrew letter Lamed to this card, which means an arm that reaches out and extends into the world with an expansive movement. Divine law expands into the world through revealed law. Those who obey divine law are elevated, and those who violate it are punished – which circles us back to the punishment of the Italian traitor.
Occult card interpretations look back to earlier centuries and speak of punishment, violent death, and betrayal of trust. Additionally, their card meanings include submission to a higher power, devotion and self-denial.
The Golden Dawn and A. E. Waite
The Golden Dawn assigned this card to the Hebrew letter Mem signifying water, the planet Neptune and the zodiac sign Pisces. Their name of the card was Spirit of the Mighty Waters. This concept is reinforced by the head and arms making an inverted triangle, the alchemical symbol for water.
Waite stated emphatically that Eliphas Levi was wrong to associate this card with Prudence, the completion of the Great Work or with martyrdom. Yet Waite gave the Hanged Man a halo and called it “the nimbus of the martyr”.
In his book The Pictorial Key to Tarot, Waite says the Hanged Man is not suffering, he’s in a trance, his life is in suspension. Waite, a Christian mystic, said this card is essentially about the relationship between the Divine and the Universe and the promise of resurrection.
This bungee jumper from the Songs for the Journey Home deck continues the Golden Dawn’s water theme by showing the jumper descending into deep waters swarming with mysterious creatures. Cautious, sensible people go from Point A to Point B along the bridge’s safe and narrow path, never exploring the deep waters far below. The Hanged One obeyed an inner compulsion to leave the narrow, conventional path and surrender to a process of radical transformation. Perhaps the bungee jumper’s old life was intolerable and they instinctively knew that the only way out is through the deep waters of the unconscious and a meeting with the monsters lurking there.
How can we reconcile the early Italian traitor with the contemporary Hanged One who follows a path of personal transformation? They both stand outside the normal social order and both cling to unconventional values. The traitor may be a criminal in the eyes of the establishment, but he risked his life to pursue something he valued. If the United States had lost the War of Independence, George Washington and all the Founding Fathers would have been hung as British traitors, but they would have entered American folklore as martyrs for freedom. The contemporary Hanged One leads a courageous, unconventional life that is condemned by those who don’t understand the inner process. These nonconformists know they must follow their heart or suffer a spiritual death.
See more cards and art at https://www.tarotwheel.net/history/the%20individual%20trump%20cards/lo%20impichato.html
List of Illustrations
- Tarocchini Bolognese Al Mondo, mid 18th Restored by Marco Cesare Benedetti, 2020. Collection of The British Museum.
- Andrea del Sarto. I Capitani Impicatti. c. 1529. Uffizi Gallery.
- Filippino Lippi. Hanged Man. Late 15th Louvre inv. #10715
- Giuseppe Manni. Executing a Shame Painting. In Conjurationis Pactianae anni MCCCCLXXVIII. Naples, 1769.
- The Rosenwald Tarot, c. 1475. Re-created by Sullivan Hismans. Tarot Sheet Revival, 2017. Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
- I Tarocchi Visconti Sforza. Milan c.1450. Reproduced by Il Meneghello: Milan, 2002. Collection of Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City.
- Portrait of Francesco Sforza. Bonifacio Bembo, 1460. Brera Gallery: Milan.
- Basilica di San Petronio, Bolognini Chapel, Bologna. Fresco of Hell. Giovanni da Modena, 1410.
- Fanti, Sigismondo. Trionpho di Fortuna. Venice, 1527.
- Tarocchini of Giuseppe Mitelli. Bologna, c. 1665, published by Dal Negro.
- Carlo Crivelli. Saint Peter Martyr, 1476. Panel for an altarpiece. National Gallery, London.
- Tarocchi Charles VI, c. 1460. Collection of Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
- Derived from the engraved deck by Carlo Della Rocca, published by Gumppenberg, 1835. Avondo Brothers, Serra Valle-Sesia, 1880. Published by Lo Scarabeo.
- Jean Noblet Tarot, Paris, c. 1650. Restored by Joseph H. Peterson, 2016. Collection of Bibliothèque Nationale Française.
- Tarot Flamand Vandenborre, Brussels, 1762. Restored by Pablo Robledo, Argentina, 2018.
- François Chosson Tarot, 1736. Restored by Yves Reynaud and Wilfried Houdouin.
- Oswald Wirth Tarot, 1887. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
- Inverted triangle and cross symbolizing completion of the alchemical Great Work.
- The Centennial Waite Smith Tarot Deck. London, 1909. U.S. Games System, Inc., Stamford, CT, 2009.
- Songs for the Journey Home Tarot. Cook, Katherine and Dwariko Von Summaruga. Self-Published, 1996, 2006.
- Caldwell, Ross Sinclair, Thierry Depaulis, Marco Ponzi (translation and commentary). Con gli occhi et con l’intelletto. com, 2019.
- Decker, Ronald, Thierry Depaulis, Michael Dummett. A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
- De Gregory, W. Terni. Bianca Maria Visconti: Duchessa di Milano. Bergamo: Istituto Italiano d’Arte Grafiche, 1940. p. 105
- Kaplan, Stuart. Encyclopedia of Tarot Volume II. Stamford: US Games Systems, 1986, p. 91
- Vitali, Andrea, ed. Il Castello dei Tarocchi. Torino: Lo Scarabeo, 2010. p. 75
- Vitali, Andrea and Terry Zanetti. I Tarocchi: Storia, Arte Magia. Edizione Le Tarot, 2006. pp 108, 130.
- Welch, Evelyn. Art and Society in Italy 1350-1500. Oxford University Press, p. 218-219.