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L’Imperatrice/The Empress in Tarot

VISCONTI SFORZA
TRIONFI c. 1450
Tarot of the Old Path Empress Card
TAROT OF THE
OLD PATH, 1990

An empress’s first duty is to bear sons who will assure the dynasty’s survival, and daughters to marry off for political advantage. But most empresses who come to mind—the Byzantine Theodora, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Victoria of England—are not remembered for their maternal qualities.  Nor is the traditional Tarot Empress emblematic of motherhood. She appears self-sufficient and powerful, seated confidently on her throne, prominently displaying the imperial crown, orb and scepter.

We don’t see the Tarot Empress as a mother until the twentieth century. In contemporary decks she’s often depicted as a beautiful young woman in her prime, decked with flowers, and proud of her body and sexuality. She nurses a baby while surrounded by abundant grain, fruit and vegetables, and—in case we don’t get the message—frolicking rabbits.

This contemporary earth mother is the product of incremental shifts in the card’s interpretation over the past few hundred years.  Let’s follow the Tarot Empress’s evolution through the centuries.

The First Tarot Empress

Tarocchi Visconti di Modrone Empress card
VISCONTI DI MODRONE TRIONFI c. 1442
Queen Theodolinda fresco by Zavattari
QUEEN THEODOLINDA
FRESCO, 1446

The earliest Tarot Empress comes from a deck commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, in the early 1440s. The Visconti di Modrone Empress sits confidently on her throne, wearing a fur-lined gown, and attended by four young women. She holds a scepter and a shield with the imperial eagle, a Visconti family device adopted when Filippo Maria’s father, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, bought the title of hereditary Duke from Emperor-elect Wenceslaus in 1395. The striking similarity between the Visconti-Sforza Empress at the top of this page and the Modrone Empress may be a clue that Bianca, daughter of Duke Filippo Visconti and wife of Duke Francesco Sforza, was the model for both cards, which were probably painted by the same artist.

In the mid-1440s, the Zavattari brothers, who may have created the Modrone deck, painted a fresco cycle in the Monza Cathedral near Milan telling the story of Queen Theodolinda of the Lombards. This semi-legendary queen, who reigned in the early 600s, is rendered as an idealized International Gothic beauty, very similar to the Modrone Empress, with, pale skin and golden curls. She wears the same high-waisted gown and large crown as 15th-century Tarot Empresses.

BARBARA VON CELJE

If the emperor in the Modrone deck is Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, then the Empress could be his wife, Empress Barbara von Celje (Cilli). Queen of Hungary and Bohemia in her own right, she spent most of her time administering her feudal lands in Hungary and serving as her husband’s regent, while the Emperor was occupied elsewhere with political intrigues. Dark rumors of multiple lovers and heretical religious beliefs swirled around her. It’s impossible to know how much of it was truth and how much the usual way of dragging a powerful woman through the mud. Although married to the Holy Roman Emperor for strategic reasons at a very young age, Barbara’s intelligence and political astuteness made the marriage a successful political alliance.

Allegory of Power by Antonio Albizzi
ALLEGORY OF POWER
ALBIZZI, 1610

Royal women of the Middle Ages and Renaissance often presided over their own courts, and were a locus of power in their own right, based on personal connections and their family’s hereditary lands. Once a queen fulfilled her most important duty by producing an heir, she was often given her own castle and granted a good deal of personal freedom. Traditionally, the Allegory of Empire or Power was rendered as a woman on a throne with imperial insignia, like the Renaissance engraving shown here. Early Tarot Empresses are independent, powerful and depicted as most people imagined her: remote, surrounded by symbols of her rank, eternally beautiful and untouchable.

Early Italian and French Empresses

In most French and Italian block-printed decks from the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, the Empress is an imposing signifier of power. She is portrayed sitting on a throne holding the staff and globe of universal sovereignty. Some Empresses lack a shield with the imperial eagle, possibly because the deck was printed in a region where the Pope had more influence than his rival the emperor.

The Tarot de Marseille

When the deck consolidated into the Tarot de Marseille (TdM) pattern in the 17th century, the empress took her iconic form–cradling the imperial eagle shield in her right arm and holding a scepter topped with the orb and cross of temporal and spiritual rulership. The back of her throne is draped with curtains that some deck designers mistook for wings. One of the earliest cards in this pattern is the French Jacques Vievil Tarot from about 1650. The standard French TdM Empress has remained essentially unchanged up to the present day. One of the oldest TdM images is the Payen Tarot of 1713. When Italian card printing revived in the nineteenth century, the Empress resembled her French TdM sisters, but with an Italian flair, like this card by Dotti of Milan from 1845.

Over the centuries, a body of card interpretations accrued around the Empress that emphasized her status, wealth and power. She was seen as a strong-willed, intelligent manager, and a practical problem solver who knows how to make things happen and manifest her goals. While the Emperor is all about power and authority, The Empress balances power with compassion.

The empress who presides over the court’s social activities is behind the Tarot Empress as wife and mother, efficiently managing her household while maintaining an active social life with a network of friends and family. Less flattering card meanings stress the negative aspects of femininity: frivolous, emotional, self-indulgent, vain, and a busy-body. Whatever her status, she must negotiate a patriarchal social system where her rank and power are conferred by her husband and her worth rests on her ability to give birth to male heirs who will continue her husband’s dynasty.

Decks Without an Empress

TAROCCHINO AL MONDO
1725
F. ISNARD TAROT
c. 1783

Twice in the history of Tarot, the Empress was replaced by a different image. In 1725, a scuffle between the secular and religious powers of Bologna resulted in the Papal Legate, who had most of the power, decreeing that the Emperor, Empress, Pope and Papess of the Tarot deck must be replaced by four Moors. The Moor illustrated here, holding a scepter topped by a crescent moon, may be a replacement for the Empress. This change is discussed in more detail in the Emperor article.

After the Revolution, 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 Empress has been renamed Grand Mère (grandmother). Her crown is replaced by a soft hat, or perhaps an elaborate hairdo. The imperial eagle on the shield is obliterated by generic stripes, making for a politically harmless image.

French Occult Tarot

OSWALD WIRTH TAROT, 1887

In his compendium of western esotericism, Transcendental Magic, the nineteenth-century occultist Eliphas Levi based his description of the Empress on the Apocalypse of St. John: “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelations. 12:1, the Bible). The Church associated the enthroned Woman of the Apocalypse with Mary. According to the apocalyptic teachings that were popular in the late Middle Ages, after the end of times the new world order would be reinstated by the Holy Roman Emperor, whose insignia was the imperial eagle on his shield. Oswald Wirth based his card on the Tarot de Marseille while following Levi’s description closely. The Empress’s foot rests on a crescent moon and twelve stars encircle her head. Wirth retained the eagle on the shield, but rather than indicating imperial power, it symbolizes the soul and the Holy Spirit.

Occultists called the Empress Venus-Urania, the Queen of Heaven, who dwells “in the sublime heights of the ‘ideal’ above all contingency….” (Wirth). Her static posture and her foot resting on the crescent moon indicate she has risen above the changeable sublunary world.

Madonna Enthroned by Mantegna
MADONNA ALTARPIECE, MANTEGNA 1458

The French system of card attributions gives the Hebrew letter Gimel (throat) to the Empress. The throat is where abstract concepts in the brain are given form and uttered. By extension, Venus-Urania presides over spirit entering material form and the soul experiencing organic birth. This is echoed in the Roman association of Venus with Isis seated on a throne holding the baby Horus, which is the template for the enthroned Madonna. This Isis-Madonna connection associates the Empress with motherhood and fertility in a rather elevated and abstract way. She is the Mother of Form, ushering creative energy into material realization.

All of these overlapping images: The Holy Roman Empress, the Enthroned Madonna, the maternal Isis and the Apocalyptic Woman, contributed to subsequent interpretations of the Tarot Empress.

The Golden Dawn

Golden Dawn Tarot by Wang and Regardie
GOLDEN DAWN TAROT, 1977

The Golden Dawn’s Empress is the “Daughter of the Mighty Ones.” She is the pregnant Great Mother presiding over the material world. Aphrodite’s dove floats near her head and her Ankh resembles the symbol of Venus. Attributing the Hebrew letter Daleth (door) to the Empress links her with the womb, motherhood and the birth of spirit into the world.

The Golden Dawn’s symbolism and card meanings are very similar to the French tradition. As the doorway to organic birth, and the one who presides over the material world, this Empress is closely associated with Gaia, the mythic Great Mother rather than with motherhood as human women experience it. As Venus/Aphrodite she has connotations of pleasure, luxury, charm and beauty; as well as negative feminine attributes like frivolity, changeability and superficiality. This dual nature, sensuous Aphrodite and maternal vessel of life, underlies most contemporary interpretations of this card.

The Waite Smith Deck

Rider Waite Smith Tarot
WAITE SMITH TAROT, 1909

When A. E. Waite designed the Empress card of the Rider Waite Smith Tarot, he retained Wirth’s crown of stars, but the crescent moon under her feet migrated to Waite’s High Priestess card. The astrological symbol of Venus appears on her shield instead of the imperial eagle. Rather than the traditional embodiment of temporal power, or the occult Queen of Heaven, Waite called the Empress “The Fruitful Mother.” The ripening wheat at her feet, and the red pomegranates on her robe, link her with Ceres and Persephone. The waterfall appears in certain masonic and mystical writings that Waite was familiar with. See the link to Robert O’Neill’s page below for exact quotes.

Eden Gray, in her influential books based heavily on Waite, associates this card with marriage, fertility, parenthood, harvest, and wealth. The Empress is maternal and life-giving, while social and political power are minimized.

The Contemporary Tarot Empress

Contemporary Empress cards carry a range of projections concerning femininity and motherhood. The Robin Wood Empress is the ultimate Earth Mother: pregnant, sitting placidly at her spinning wheel in a fertile landscape, a basket of vegetables at her feet. Her starry tiara, red flowers and shield with the Venus symbol link this card with Waite’s.

Another Waite-based card, done in the style of Alphonse Mucha, emphasizes her Venus/Aphrodite aspect. This Empress is beautiful, seductive and luxuriates in abundance, signified by the wheat fanned out behind her like a peacock’s tail.

Brian Williams’ witty PoMo deck gives us a rather overbearing Mom, offering a pie with one hand while wielding a menacing, over-sized rolling pin with the other.

Conclusion

Whether she’s depicted as the epitome of worldly wealth and power, as the Queen of Heaven, the embodiment of nature’s abundance and fertility, or an idealized mother, the Empress is feminine power personified. She occupies her throne with strength and confidence, facing us directly, sure of who she is and sure of her worth.

See more cards and images at
 http://tarotwheel.net/history/the%20individual%20trump%20cards/imperatrix.html

References
Roettgen, Steffi. Italian Frescoes: The Early Renaissance 1400-1470. Abbeville Press, 1996.
Robert O’Neill on Waite’s symbolism:
http://www.tarotpassages.com/old_moonstruck/oneill/3.htm

List of Decks
I Tarocchi Visconti Sforza. Milan @1450. Reproduced by Il Meneghello, Milan, 2002. Collection of Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City.
Tarot of the Old Path. Gainsford and Rodway. AGMuller, 1990.
Tarocchi Visconti di Modrone XV Century, facsimile by Il Meneghello, Milan, 2015.
Queen Theodolinda. Fresco, Cathedral of Monza, Italy. Zavattari family, 1446.
Empress Barbara Celje. Meister der Chronik des Konzils von Konstanz @1440, collection of Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.
Allegory of Power from the title page of Principium Christianum Stemmatii by Antonio Albizzi, 1610.
The Rosenwald Deck, @1475. Re-created by Sullivan Hismans at Tarot Sheet Revival, 2017. Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Budapest Tarot, @1500. 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.
Catelin Geoffroy Tarot. Lyon, @1557. Collection of Museum of Kunsthandwerk, Frankfurt.
Jacques Vievil Tarot, @1650. Restored and hand painted by Sullivan Hismans. Tarot Sheet Revival, 2019.
Tarot de Jean-Pierre Payen, 1713, restored by Yves Reynaud, Marseille, 2016
Tarocco Italiano. Dotti, Milan, 1845. Restored by Il Meneghello, Milan, 1985.
Tarocco Bolognese Al Mondo, 1725. Facsimile by Marco Benedetti, Rome, 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.
Enthroned Madonna. San Zeno Altarpiece, Verona. Andrea Mantegna 1457-1459.
The Golden Dawn Tarot. Robert Wang and Israel Regardie. U.S. Games, Systems Inc., Stamford, CT, 1977.
The Rider Tarot Deck, A. E. Waite and P.C. Smith, 1909, U.S. Games Systems, 1971
The Robin Wood Tarot, Llewellyn Publications, 1991
Tarot Mucha. Lo Scarabeo, Italy, 2014.
PoMo Tarot. Brian Williams. Harper San Francisco, 1994.

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