Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Mystical Staircase

The mystical journey toward Knowledge



Essay by Andrea Vitali, 2004


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, Feb. 2012

Ad patriam vitae noctis da valle vocati, / virtutum gradibus scandite lucis iter. / Arduus atque arctus fert ad coelestia callis: / devexa ad mortem ducit, et amplia via (Called from the Valley of Death to the country of Life, climb along the road of light by the steps of virtue; the difficult and narrow path leads to the skies, the broad descending road brings death).  
                           Prosper Aquitanus, Epigrammata ex sententiis S. Augustini, 655 LXIX

As we have seen from the first section of the essay The History of the Tarot, entitled 'The Celestial Harmony', in the XVth century the 22 trump cards represented a teaching of mystical Asceticism. The origin of the concept of the Mystical Staircase in the Christian tradition dates back to the famous biblical passage that tells of Jacob's dream during his trip to Harran, a city in Mesopotamia (Genesis, 28, 12-13). Jacob left quickly, traveling all day. When night came, he fell asleep under the stars, using a stone for a pillow. As he slept, he had a dream about a beautiful staircase [or ladder, scala in Italian] that reached all the way from earth up to heaven. At the top, in the clouds, God appeared and promised to give him and his descendants, that is, the people of Israel, the land on which he lay (figure 1Jacob’s dream, Bible of Vinceslao, cod. 2759, fol. 27r, 1389 ca. -1395. Hofbibliotheck, Vienna / figure 2 - Raphael Sadeler, 1569 - c. 1628. The Jacob’s dream, etching). (It is necessary to observe that the staircase recalls the great steps of the Babyloniian Ziggurat, which led from the ground to the summit, where the temple of God was situated, and where that same God was considered to dwell). 

Jacob woke up and said: "Surely God is in this place and I didn't know it". And he made a vow to God. Then he took the stone he had slept on and set it upright to remember this special place. He called that place Bethel, that is “House of God”.

The Fathers of the Church, both in the West and in the East, provided several allegorical interpretations of this episode. For Philo of Alexandria (1st century), Clement of Alexandria (c. before 215), and Origen (185-253/254) the Angels were compared to the human soul and their ascent and descent to the ascension to the sky. Meanwhile for other Fathers, the Staircase meant the bond of union between the spiritual and the material worlds, and the Angels were assimilated to the divine words. In addition, the Staircase was seen as a symbol of Mary and Jesus in the role of intermediary between heaven and earth (figure 3 - Guglielmo Borremans, The Mistic Staircase, 1722, Church of Santa Maria della Pietà, Palermo. Photo by Angela Bisesi).

In primitive Christianity, the road to heaven was imagined in the form of ascension, like that of Christ and Elijah. To represent the journey of humans toward an encounter with God, the Staircase became the principal element together with a high mountain. This representation had great iconographic and hagiographic success: Perpetua, the Carthaginian martyr, while she was constrained n prison, had a vision of a high and narrow staircase rising to the sky, with swords, spears and ther sorts of weapons that hindered the way from the sides, while a dragon stirred at its base, signifying the way to heaven through martyrdom. 

The greatest humility and divine bliss could be attained in earthly life by an ascent, setting oneself as a staircase [scala], to be realized by their own works, like that of Jacob, relying in the first place on the virtues (the moralizing stairs of virtue are usual in the medieval art of illumination) capable of breaking down the pride “that sinks man preventing his elevation" (Saint Benedict of Norcia).

With the thought of Scholasticism - which confirmed the truth of faith through the use of reason and recourse to authority - was born a new and fruitful connection between theology and philosophy by which Scientia (Science) and Sapientia (Wisdom) - including Philosophia, which prepares all understanding of faith, and Theologia  claiming to be supreme expressions - were considered mystical rungs of the ladder [scala], which appear on the engraving accompanying the work of the Bishop Antonio Bettini, El monte sancto di Dio (The Holy Mountain of God) (1477), "a symbolic writing that wishes to show the way to attain eternal felicity" (figure 4). In this work, the Jesuit who climbs the ladder has one foot resting on the head of the devil, which we found as a dragon in the vision of the martyr Perpetua, where, as St. Augustine observed, its head formed the first rung of the ladder. Its meaning is simple: the road of ascension could not be undertaken without first crushing the head of the devil, that is, rejecting evil. To represent the route of ascent, in addition to the ladder, we find a mountain, as appears in Antonio Bettini’s engraving, although the two motifs will live for the most part independently.

In the Tarot of Charles VI a mountain in stylized form is put on the path of the Hermit (figure 5): its top, as close to heaven, participates in the symbolism of transcendence, a meeting point between heaven and earth and the end of human ascension. John of the Cross wrote about this in The Ascent of Mount Carmel (1579-1585): “The Soul that wants to climb the mountain of perfection in order to speak to God has to renounce all material things and leave them below" (I, 5,6). A wonderful depiction of the Mountain of Ascent is the Allegory of the Mountain of Wisdom, inlaid marble pavement made by Bernardino di Betto, called Pinturicchio, in the Cathedral of Siena in the years 1505 and 1506 (figure 6).              

Here a classic Fortuna is depicted as the guide of a ship who has conducted, to the foot of the Mountain of Wisdom through a dark and turbulent sea, the philosophers who wish to reach the top (1).  The narrow path from the sea onto the precipice that leads to the top of the mountain is studded with pitfalls: snakes (devils) everywhere are lurking to invalidate the path of the philosophers. With the same symbolic significance we find the devil in some representations of the ladder (figure 7 - The Ladder to Paradise, Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai).

On the flat top of the mountain an elegant elegiac couplet (figure 8) towers above the figure of Wisdom: HUC PROPERATE VIRI / SALEBROSUM SCANDITE / MONTEM / PULCHRA LABORIS ERUNT / PREMIA PALMA QUIES (O men, hurry to come up here, climb the rugged mountain, the beautiful prize of the work will be the palm that gives serenity). To the right and left of Wisdom are Socrates and Crates, the latter in the act of throwing jewels into the sea, a clear sign of the renunciation of all material goods as a necessary step for ascending to felicity. The episode of Crates casting his riches into the sea is mentioned elsewhere, for example in St. Jerome's Letters: “Crates ille Thebanus, homo quondam ditissimus, cum ad philosaphandum Athenas pergeret, magnus auri pondus abiecit, nec putavit se posse et virtutes simul et divitia possedere” (58,2). 

Another character, whom we find along with others in the first part of the path, is the philosopher Zeno of Citium, a pupil of Crates, to whom Diogenes Laertes in his Lives of Philosophers has dedicated ample space: «The meeting with Crates passed as follows: Having bought some purple in Phoenicia, he was shipwrecked with the whole load near the Piraeus. He went up to Athens (he had already reached the age of thirty) and sat in the shop of a bookseller, reading the second book of the Commentaries of Xenophon. Zeno felt so much happiness that he asked where he could ever find men like Socrates. At that precise moment Crates passed, and the bookseller pointed to him saying "Follow this man". After that he became a pupil of Crates: his spirit was very energetic in philosophy ...Someone attributed to him these words: "So, I made a good journey, when I was wrecked" and "I am blessed, that fate has me land in philosophy"» (2). 

On the marquetry, Zeno is depicted with a large cloak edged with yellow and a hat of the same color, showing his right hand open and his left closed with a clenched fist, an attitude that connects to the meaning of rhetoric (the open hand) and dialectics, which needed to sqeeze together coherent conclusions (the clenched fist), as we can see illustrated in the Orator (32, 113) and  Finibus honorum et malorum (2,6,17) by Cicero. Petrarch, in the Triumph of Fame, says in reference to Zeno: "I saw Zeno, father of Stoics, standing up in order to illustrate better his words, with one open palm and one clenched fist" (115-118, a).     

 If we have dwelt on this character, it is to highlight the importance of Science as expressed previously, in the journey of ascent.  It was a Science that included in addition to philosophy, rhetoric, dialectics, etc., and belonged to the Muses (3) as interpreted by Cicero and Fulgentius, as personifications of the intellectual faculties; they were depicted together with the ancient philosophers on sarcophagi and identified precisely with Science. The Muses also participated in the journey to the gods in classical thought, as we find in Catullus (Carmina 105): "Mentula conator Pipleium scandere montem / Musae fucillis praecipitem eiciunt" (Mamurra, surnamed Minchia, tries to climb the heights of Mount Parnassus, / With three-tined forks the Muses to throw him down).

Another example equivalent to the staircase or the Mountain of Ascension, even if physically it is composed of concentric walls that contain as many enclosures, with gates that allow passage between them, is the Tabula Cebetis, a dialogue of the 1st century A.D., which represents the path of human beings to Felicity, depicted seated on a rock in the middle of the three enclosures (figure 9 - Tabula Cebetis, from Educational letters around the Count Cornelius Pepoli VC Cebetis’ table Queen of Arcadia with pastoral name of Cratejo Erasiniano, Venice, 1771). Here are some verses from this work, in the form of a dialogue between an old man and some foreigners, where the old man gives a warning to the foreigners about the risks arising from ignorance: "Old Man: If you pay attention to understanding what I tell you, you will be wise and happy; otherwise, you’ll become senseless and unhappy, hateful and ignorant, and so you will live badly. These things then, which you don't understand, are destroying you into senselessness, not all at once...but little by little during your entire existence, like those condemned for life. If instead someone comes to know, then it is the time of senselessness to die, and one is saved and becomes blessed and happy all one's life" (4). 

The whole scene is full of allegorical figures symbolizing passion, human vices and virtues. After passing through various obstacles on "an impervious road, rough and rocky", he reaches the hill where true Culture is, described as "a beautiful woman, of firm face, median and already mature age, dressed in a simple and unadorned way”. It is up to her to conduct the man to the presence of Science and the other Virtues, which in their turn, will guide all human beings towards Felicity. In the 22 Triumphs that mirror the teaching of the Staircase in the form of a game - Mons. Lorenzo Dattrino writes that the number 22 in Christian Mysticism "constitutes the foundation and introduction to the wisdom of God and the knowledge of the world" (5) - will be the senselessness of the Fool, that is, the one who does not believe, to destroy himself leading to the ruin of his soul. The wise, that is, those who will understand the right way through intellect and reason (Virtus mentis sciendi et iure adhibendi rationem est. Homines, qui sapientiam student, sapientes nominantur), avoiding riches and honors, following the virtues and loving the one God, will ascend with Him to the glory of heaven.

In all likelihood, the term "Tarot" came to replace that of "Triumph" just when the concept of the Mystic Staircase, associated to this symbolic whole, was overwhelmed by its gaming aspect, so that the game was only numbered among games of risk, and, as we know, came to be opposed and deprecated by the religious authorities, even if some good lawyer saw in the game of tarot "something virtuous".     




1Read about The Wheel of Fortune under "Iconological Essays" by Andrea Vitali.

2Edition 1998, pp. 243-244.  

3 -  See the essay  Schifanoia e i Tarocchi (In Italian)

4Translated [from Latin] by D. Pesce, 1982, p. 43.

5 -  Mons. Prof. Lorenzo Dattrino, Il Simbolismo dei numeri nella Patristica (The Symbolism of the numbers in Patristic), in "G. Berti - A. Vitali (Edited by), Tarocchi: Arte e Magia (Tarot: Art and Magic)", Le Tarot Editions, 1994, p. 71.

by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 2004