L’Imperatore/L’Empereur/The Emperor in Tarot
Emperors are rather scarce these days, so the Emperor Tarot card has become a receptacle for our modern notions about masculinity and patriarchal authority. But at the time of Tarot’s invention in the fifteenth century, the Holy Roman Emperor’s ongoing power struggle with the Pope was a major factor in the chronic warfare and power politics of the Italian peninsula.
The office of Holy Roman Emperor began with Charlemagne and lasted for a thousand years, until Napoleon dissolved the institution in 1806. The Holy Roman Empire was seen as a continuation of the Roman Empire, as well as being the secular arm of God’s authority on earth. The Holy Roman Emperor started his career as a king of Germany who was designated emperor-elect by his fellow Germanic aristocrats. He traveled to Milan where he received the Iron Crown of Lombardy and the title King of Italy. Then he proceeded to Rome where the Pope crowned him emperor during an investiture ceremony.
In theory, the Pope and Emperor cooperated in extending God’s authority on Earth. In reality, the Emperor and Pope kept Italy in turmoil for centuries, playing tug-of-war over territory and feuding about who had ultimate authority over bishops and abbots. Cities, craft guilds and important families lined up on one side or the other.
The First Tarot Emperor
Emperor Sigismund (died 1437) is honored in the Visconti di Modrone Trionfi deck, one of the oldest known ancestors of the Tarot. This portrait of Sigismund by Albrecht Dürer highlights the Emperor’s distinctive forked beard that appears on the card. Gian Galeazzo Visconti was made the first Duke of Milan in 1395 after making a hefty payoff to Sigismund’s elder brother, Emperor-elect Wenceslaus. Gian Galeazzo’s son, Duke Filippo Maria Visconti, commissioned this luxurious hand-painted deck for his daughter’s wedding, and may be acknowledging Sigismund in the card. The Tarot Emperor is easily recognized by his traditional symbolic items: the staff and globe of temporal and spiritual power, and the imperial eagle (on his fashionable fan-shaped hat instead of the usual shield).
Early Italian and French Emperors
Late fifteenth-century Italian decks, as well as sixteenth- and seventeenth-century French decks, depict a generic bearded emperor holding a globe and scepter. Most Italian emperors are surrounded by small figures—courtiers or servants. The Tarot de Paris shows one of the few standing emperors. He has a large feather in his crown, and if he’s holding a scepter or globe, they are very hard to see. Most handpainted decks of this period omit the imperial eagle, possibly to avoid emphasizing the German emperor’s influence in many Italian city-states. An exception is the late fifteenth-century block-printed Budapest deck that displays the double eagle, signifying the emperor’s temporal and spiritual powers.
Tarot de Marseille
By the mid-seventeenth century, after Tarot deck production moved to France, the Emperor acquired his familiar Tarot de Marseille characteristics, which remained unchanged for centuries. The Emperor sits on his throne in profile with his legs crossed. A shield with the imperial eagle rests on the ground. His crown has a wide brim on the back, and he wears a heavy gold chain around his neck. The position of his legs was staged for maximum effect. Sitting at ease with one leg crossed over the other traditionally signified the highest status person in the room, or someone about to pass a legal judgment.
Italians adopted the French Tarot de Marseille design with their own decorative flourishes. The Milanese Soprafino Emperor is lacking one of his symbols of authority, the orb. His clothing is festooned with lace and fringe, and the eagle device on his shield has turned into an actual bird.
A core of basic interpretations has accumulated around this Tarot de Marseille card over the centuries. The Emperor is always the ultimate authority in any situation, and his influence can range from tyrannical to benevolent. He is confident, rational, and strong-willed. This card often represents a successful professional or businessman who is organized, focused, and able to carry out his intentions.
When the Emperor Became a Moor
Bologna’s unique 62-card Tarocchino, called Tarocco Bolognese elsewhere in Italy, has roots in the fifteenth century and is still popular with card players today. Four pip cards in each suit were removed. Many trump cards show imagery borrowed from the so-called Charles VI deck made for the Este dukes of Ferrara. Examples include the woman with a spindle on the Sun card, and two astronomers on the Moon. But the deck’s most distinguishing feature came about because of a minor political scuffle.
For centuries, Bologna had been a papal state administered by the Pope’s representative, a Cardinal-Legate, who had a tremendous amount of authority over tax collection, the military and the administration of justice. Bologna was unique for a Papal state in being allowed to have a senate. Theoretically there was a balance of power between the legate and the senate. In actuality, the senate was fairly weak and the legate constantly connived to strip it of any authority. In 1725, the legate became enraged when Bologna was described as having a “mixed” government in a geography-themed Tarot deck. He arrested all the artisans who had been hired to carve and print the deck, and decreed that henceforth the Empress, Emperor, Popess and Pope of the Tarot deck would be replaced by four Moors. These Moors have been the signature feature of Bolognese Tarot ever since.
Modern Moors are nearly identical; the only difference being the number of arrows or spears they hold. But some of the earliest decks give the Moors more personality. The Al Mondo deck from the mid-1700s shows the Moors holding symbolic implements that hint at their origins as secular or religious figures. The Moor shown here, an Emperor substitute, holds a scepter topped by the sun, indicating he’s a masculine and secular figure.
Bolognese fortune-tellers have their own unique, regional card-reading tradition. They shorten the deck by removing more pip cards and two of the Moors, until the deck has 35, 40 or 45 cards (multiples of five). Cards are dealt into five piles with either seven, eight or nine cards in each pile. One pile is chosen for the actual reading, either randomly or by searching for the significator. Every neighborhood in Bologna has its own style of laying out the cards handed down orally through generations of readers.
When the Emperor Lost His Crown
After the French Revolution, gold crowns, and the heads that wore them, were no longer politically correct; at least until Napoleon made himself emperor and brought crowns and imperial regalia back into fashion. For decades, French printers were obliged to alter their woodblocks to get rid of imperial symbolism. The card shown here was printed by François Isnard in the 1760s and altered by a later print shop during, or just after, the revolution of 1793. The Emperor has been renamed Grand Père (grandfather). Someone who wasn’t happy with the change wrote L’Empereur at the bottom of the card. His headgear still has the same swooping brim, but the crown has been replaced by what looks like a stocking cap with a tassel. He holds a flower instead of a scepter, and the imperial eagle has been removed from his shield. Within decades, political fortunes turned, times changed, and decks quickly returned to their original Tarot de Marseille pattern.
The Occult Tradition
Nineteenth-century French occultists like Eliphas Levi, Oswald Wirth and Papus retained the Tarot de Marseille image but added their own esoteric and cosmic interpretations. They saw the Emperor’s body as a triangle with his legs making a cross. Together these form the symbol for alchemical sulfur and allude to spirit dominating matter.
Oswald Wirth’s card follows Levi’s imagery closely: The Emperor holds a scepter with a lotus flower at the top while sitting on a stone cube—the essence of stability and fixed energy. Wirth changed the angle of the Emperor’s legs slightly to be more like the astrological symbol for Jupiter.
Because of the Emperor’s association with the number four and the Hebrew letter Daleth (door or womb) occultists saw the Emperor presiding over the birth of all material things, then ruling the material world as Jupiter. The globe topped by a cross, a traditional symbol of the Emperor’s worldly and spiritual power, was reinterpreted as the astrological sign for Venus, emphasizing the concepts of birth and creation. The Emperor represents the creative fire at the heart of all beings; so he’s also energy trapped in the material world. This creative fire is symbolized with the red robe favored by most Tarot de Marseille Emperors, and emphasized in subsequent occult decks.
Occult divinatory meanings for this card are similar to popular cartomancy: mastery, strong will, power, rulership, and the ability to dominate and influence without being influenced himself. Negatively, it could indicate a brutal tyrant or feared enemy.
When British occultists shifted the Hebrew alphabet onto adjacent cards, the Emperor became aligned with the letter Heh (Window) and its astrological attributions Aries and Mars. He was known as the Son of the Morning and acquired a Martial overlay: forceful, courageous, ambitious, a victorious conqueror. Decks influenced by the Golden Dawn use the color red and rams’ heads to link the Emperor with Mars. The number four figured significantly in the Golden Dawn’s interpretation of this card. The quaternity was associated with the four seasons, four elements, four directions, and a sense of completion and wholeness.
A. E. Waite and P. C. Smith followed the Golden Dawn closely when designing their card. Rams’ heads decorate the square throne, and the Emperor’s cloak is deep red. This Emperor no longer has the attributes of the Holy Roman Emperor—he lost the imperial eagle and shield and his orb is plain gold instead of the earth globe topped by a cross. For an Egyptian flourish, the traditional orb and scepter have been combined into an Ankh (crux ansata) a symbol of the life force, the sun and fertility. The Emperor faces front and his legs are uncrossed and armored, completely negating the French occult astrological and alchemical symbolism. But the red and white stones in his crown might be Waite’s reference to alchemy.
According to Waite, this monarch is more than a worldly ruler. He is the Lord of Thought sitting on a throne of intellect. He’s also a father figure and the counterpart to the Empress.
The mountains and river behind the Emperor are unique to Waite. They could refer to the spiritual heights that must be climbed, or the harsh nature the Emperor rules, as opposed to the fertile nature the Empress presides over.
Waite’s interpretation of this card emphasizes political power, authority and leadership. By extension, the Emperor signifies society’s laws and rules of conduct. On the personal level the Emperor demonstrates will power and mental control of emotions.
Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, as tarot reading shifted emphasis from fortune telling to counseling, card interpretations became softer and oriented toward personal growth. The twenty-two major arcana were seen as stepping stones on the way to spiritual enlightenment or to an integrated personality. The lower-numbered arcana were often seen as authority figures or learning experiences the child encounters on the way to maturity. The Emperor is a benevolent father figure who gives the child needed structure and boundaries. Internally, the Emperor is the rational, logical, left brain function of the personality. Rather than being a domineering authority figure, the modern Emperor signifies character traits that help us keep our commitments and take responsibility for ourselves, our family and community.
The Ancestral Path deck retains Golden Dawn features: a square throne carved with rams’ heads, a red robe and an ankh topped by an eagle, a symbol of authority and rulership. The crystal ball and deer horns add a neo-pagan touch. The horns link the Emperor with the Green Man, the Horned God, and the Sacrificial King who is married to the land.
In the Tarot of the Crone, patriarchal power is compressed into a towering obelisk, while oppressed people form a homogenous mass at its base. But there is another side to this symbol of naked dominance. Without the power to organize and to set boundaries, life would be chaos. By ascending to the top of the obelisk, we can see life from a higher, more universal viewpoint, detached from our narrow, subjective concerns.
The Emperor as Lord of Thought appears in The William Blake Tarot. Blake’s personification of rationality is the god Urizen (the name combines Uranus and Reason) imposing duality, rigid thinking, and an obsession with measurement. For Blake, intuition and creativity were paramount, and he believed rationality could easily slide into a cold, inhumane and merciless abstraction.
The benevolent father in The Chrysalis Tarot shows a softer side of the Emperor. The leafy Green Man, completely enmeshed in nature, watches protectively over a birds’ nest.
The Emperor’s core meaning has remained consistent through the centuries. Whether he wields his power benevolently or ruthlessly, the paternal Emperor is the supreme authority and rule-giver in any situation. He’s the top dog in any social interaction: the cop who pulls you over, the teacher at the head of the classroom, or the parent disciplining a child. He’s at the top of the office organizational chart, the head of a patriarchal family, or the supreme authority in any governmental body. He lays down the rules, sets the boundaries and imposes his will.
See more cards and art at
Read more about Bolognese Tarot:
Tarocco Bolognese on this website
List of Illustrations from Top to Bottom
Pierpont Morgan Visconti Sforza Tarocchi, @1450, Milan. U.S. Games, Systems, Stamford, CT, 2015.
The Mary-El Tarot. Marie White. Schiffer Publishing, 2012.
Portrait of Emperor Sigismund. Albrecht Durer, @1512. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.
Tarocchi Visconti di Modrone, @1442. Il Meneghello, Milan, 2015.
The “Charles VI” Estensi Tarot, @1475. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
Tarot de Paris. @1650. Collection of Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris. Facsimile by André Dimanche/Grimaud, 1980.
Budapest Tarot. Recreated by Sullivan Hismans, Tarot Sheet Revival, 2017. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Tarot Claude Rochias. Switzerland, 1754. Facsimile by Yves Reynaud, 2018. Private collection.
Tarocco Soprafino di Gumppenberg, 1835. Il Meneghello, Milano, 1992. Collection of The British Museum
Tarocco Bolognese. Dal Negro, Italy, 2000.
Tarocco Bolognese Al Mondo, 1725. Facsimile by Marco Benedetti, Rome, Italy 2020. Collection of The British Museum.
François Isnard Tarot @1765, altered after 1783. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
Oswald Wirth Tarot, 1887. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
The Golden Dawn Tarot. Robert Wang and Israel Regardie. U.S. Games, Systems, Stamford, CT, 1977.
The Centennial Waite Smith Tarot Deck, London, 1909. U.S. Games System, Inc., Stamford, CT, 2019.
Ancestral Path Tarot. Julia Cuccia-Watts. U.S. Games Systems, 1997.
Tarot of the Crone. Ellen Lorenzi-Prince. Arnell’s Art, 2017.
William Blake Tarot. Ed Buryn. Thorsons, 1995
Chrysalis Tarot. Toney Brooks and Holly Sierra. U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT, 2014.
Books and Websites
Vitali, Andrea and & Terry Zanetti. Il Taroccchino di Bologna. Edizioni Martina, Bologna, 2005.
Vitali, Andrea. Bologna and the Invention of the Triumphs. Le Tarot Cultural Association, 2004. http://www.letarot.it/page.aspx?id=179
Berti, Giordano. Giuseppe Maria Mitelli and the Tarocchino Bolognese. Araba Fenice, 2017.
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