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Observations placeholder

Albrecht Dürer – 00 The Fool and Introduction



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Adapted from an article - A. DÜRER & HIS TAROTS by Yvo Jacquier


Readily available tarot cards emerged in northern Italy in the early 15th Century as printing and wood cut prints were invented. They became famous in the 18th century in Marseille, when many card makers produced these woodcuts images, coloured by stenciling. Marseille was not the exclusive location for this enterprise however and in the 17th century, Jean Noblet in Paris edited a very original version of this pack of cards. Also located in Lyon, in 1701, the Tarot of Jean Dodal, also became well known.

A number of cartiers based their production on a single deck. The most complete version of this tradition is that of Nicolas Conver from Marseille. The only complete set that has survived of this deck, resides at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. It is dated - and Conver engraved 1760 next to his name. In fact, Nicolas Conver was born in 1784.  The explanation for this apparent anomaly plunges us into the archives of Freemasonry, but the story beyond this is even older. It leads us to Italy, during the Renaissance.

Renaissance artists gathered in academies called guilds. Along with Venice , Florence was one of the most active cities in the Quattrocento supporting artists like Verrocchio, Botticelli, da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Under the protection of the rich Medici family , the Company of St. Luke (Compagnia dei fiorentini pittori di San Luca) attracted not only Italian artists but also their European counterparts. It took more than ten years of study to master the knowledge which was transmitted in this school. Besides technique, they were also taught the art of composition.

Contrary to popular belief, perspective helps to “make real”, but does not carry the symbolic meaning of the works. To do this, for millennia, painters and architects applied a completely different system : sacred geometry.

But a major problem arose.   Even if the geniuses of the Italian Quattrocento were many, they were not engravers.  The ‘testament’ to this culture needed to be written in the language of pure image, and in a form which could be multiplied, to ensure the perpetuation of the ‘secrets’, and avoid any fragmentation.

Dürer appeared to be the solution.  He was an engraver of genius, lover of mathematics and christian in his heart. In the end he showed such a passion for the challenge, that he was ‘adopted’ by the finest people of this era, especially in Venice by the Bellini family. In mathematics, he found a master in Fra Luca Pacioli, author of the Divine Proportion and inheritor of Byzantine knowledge.

Meanwhile, an art of numbers had developed long ago in Mesopotamia. The famous Babylonian tablet Plimpton 322 shows a very high level of development, eighteen centuries before our era. This in turn produced the Kabbalah, and it joined the shapes of Egypt in the school of Pythagoras.  Plato constantly referred to the Pythagoreans, for proof the solids that bear his name. All of this knowledge, - shapes and numbers, - spread thereafter in the world, including the muslim world.

In the Middle Ages, Byzantine monks were the only ones in Europe to read Greek in full. This culture settled naturally in Constantinople.  The fall of the city, in 1453, was one of the major events of the Renaissance and brought about the migration of many of these scholars to northern Italy, bringing with them the project of tarots.

And this is how the Tarot became better known, as the single card decks were copied by engravers and could be coloured and then sold in bulk.  An edition of the Mantegna was produced by an unknown Cologne engraver, for example, who worked in the mid 16th century.

In general, it is believed that Albrecht Durer never designed a full set of Tarot cards, although some of his woodcuts, such as "Melencolia" and "The Knight, Death, and the Devil," were the blueprint on which the next generation of cards were produced. 

Dürer may have had the same fascination for the symbolism in the Tarot as Dali or Crowley did, and was experimenting, without a commission, on how to represent the same concepts in different ways – with different symbols.  It is known he tried two different styles.  In other words, the juxtaposition of the cards with his pictures gave newer card painters or engravers, the key to the symbols they needed.  His drawings are somewhat like a Rossetti stone for the Tarot, even though they are incomplete.

The key here is that he was experimenting with correspondences – better and different ways of expressing the same concept than the symbol used.

Stuart Kaplan,in the Encyclopedia of Tarot volume I, page 47, shows 6 of Dürer’s 21 (or 22) cards for the Major Arcana based on the Mantegna Tarocchi.  But he may have done the engravings for some in his own style.  And he did some drawings as illustrations for a book that is tarot-related, "The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo." 

The project is believed to have stayed unfinished.  Kaplan says art historians suggest the first group at around 1496 and a later group by 1506, possibly by Durer's assistant.

The source of the experience

Tarot, the

Concepts, symbols and science items



Fool, the

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps




Both Cavendish (The Tarot) and Perrin (see reference below) give Dürer as the undoubted artist - even if Kaplan qualifies it by mentioning that some of the illustrations may have been from the hand of an assistant.

Oliver Perrin - Reflections on the Tarocchi of Mantegna [published in: Alexandria: the Journal of the Western Cosmological Traditions, vol 3, 1995]

Encyclopedia of the Tarot, Volume I, pages 35 through 47 on the Mantegna

The Complete Drawings of Albrecht Durer, c. 1974 by Walter Strauss

Note that there is also a Tarot deck by Giacinto Gaudenzi, inspired by German engraver Albrecht Dürer.