Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

Castel del Monte

The number eight and Christian mysticism


Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, June 2013

An interpretation of its intended use, always surrounded by an aura of mystery, reporting Castel del Monte in its historical reality.


To find mysteries where there are none seems now to have become a common practice in our day. Probably in a technological society such as ours, the need to fantasize to find the "wonderful" at all costs performs a necessary function, which is that of the return to origins. In this sense, the construction of Castel del Monte [Castle of the Mount] does not hide anything esoteric and its intended use. on which historians have always debated, is easy to understand. It is enough to observe it in the light of the "real story" (Figure 1 - Figure 2).


Esotericism and Exotericism


It is the same with the tarot and still is when it is assigned an esoteric source. Its presumed origin in ancient Egypt, which collapsed in the face of late medieval documents that certify it as a humanistic intellectual creation of that period, seems not to have dissuaded its proponents from that belief. It seems hard to believe that in the face of historical documents we can continue to think differently, yet it is reality. Certainly historical science has had and continues to have its faults. First, it has never clarified, perhaps better, explained, in a clear and intelligible form, that the term "esoteric" does not pertain to another history, that of mystery initiations or beliefs, but to history in a general sense


The word "esoteric" (from the Greek esoterikos, from esoteròs, which means inner, (comparative of Ésò or Iso = inside) owes its origin to the school of Pythagoras: the disciples called esoterics were in fact those allowed inside the school, where they had the opportunity to see the teacher and listen to his lectures. Those who did not enjoy this privilege, staying outside, were called by the term exoterics (from the Greek Exòtericos). "Esoteric" therefore means "reserved to the disciples or initiates" as opposed to "exoteric" i.e. "external, public", referring to a religious or philosophical doctrine or practice that can be communicated even to the uninitiated. Obviously, these two types of teachings served several purposes: first, the esoteric was aimed at those who were believed to be able to understand even the most difficult aspects of a doctrine; the other, the "exoteric", was aimed at the majority, that is, to those who needed information of a more general character, as they were incapable of grasping the deeper principles.


If we take, for example, our Christianity, we find in it aspects of both an esoteric and exoteric character. From the beginning, when the traditional form of Christianity was stabilized, to assume the religious connotations proper to it, there was no reason not to recognize the complexity of the doctrine and thus of course not to take for granted a certain gradation of understanding, so that the majority could assimilate only the simplest aspects, while only a few were able to pursue its higher meanings" (1)


In this regard, we can cite what St Paul writes (Hebrews 5:11-12) :"On this we would have to say many things, but they are difficult to explain because you are slow to understand  much so that you are reduced to needing milk and not solid food. "Milk" and "solid food" acquire an allegorical value presented here as aspects of a teaching more suitable for babies, milk, unlike "solid food" that is digestible to those older, that is to say, "a simple teaching and a more complex teaching". Allegory and symbol thus become, as in this example, one of the means - but not the only one - at the esoteric level of any doctrine. Professing to "esoteric faith" means absolutely nothing, because it takes more comprehensive coordination in order to understand what kind of religious thought is believed.


The Number Eight and Mystical Christian Numerology


This brief introduction to the meaning of esotericism must serve for understanding what follows explaining about Castel del Monte and the purpose of its construction. An interpretation it is not possible without resorting to symbolic numerology and its esoteric meanings, not only in medieval Christian symbolism, but also of that of the East and Islam, by which the Christian was influenced. Obviously, since this essay must have the characteristic of brevity, we will take into consideration only the basic aspects justifying the purpose of the construction of the Castle, referring the reader to the following two fundamental works, as regards the relationship of Frederick II (Figure 3 - Frederick II, Exultet, Salerno, Chapter Library) to his time and the innumerable symbolisms present in it and the documents concerning it: Franco Cardini, Castel del Monte. Federico II e il mito dell’Italia ghibellina Castel del Monte [Frederick II and the myth of Ghibelline Italy] (2) Giosuè Musca, Castel del Monte. Il reale e l’immaginario [Castel del Monte. The real and the imaginary] (3).


What is surprising in its examination by historians, with the exception of Prof. Cardini, is the attitude with which they have approached the study of the Castle: there always exists in their writings something indefinite, inclined to a mystery that does not exist in historical terms. When it comes to Christian symbolic numerology, we are discussing something that was commonly known at the time by architects, clerics and men of culture in general, and therefore certainly not characterized by esoteric meanings. A building with an octagonal layout like Castel del Monte is basically explained by historians as "possible practice " (with too many accents, however, placed on the "extraordinariness" of that possibility) rather than "normal practice" (in the sense that it could also be, in some cases, implemented in that way) of medieval architecture, especially of a religious. nature Moreover, this concept is not then communicated with the same immediacy to the general public by the bodies responsible for informing visitors. We all know what capacity for attraction is reserved for mystery! In fact, even in the most authoritative guides we can find such phrases as "Castel del Monte, pervaded by mystery" or "One of the most sought-after tourist destinations of Puglia... for the fame, a bit mysterious (sic), that still hovers over it by reason of its octagonal shape."


Regarding the purpose of Castel del Monte’s construction, some historians, not finding inside particular structures that indicate this or that possible use, have downgraded the Castle even "to an ideal construction without a purpose." Musca writes, citing the opinion of some scholars, that in Castel del Monte "because the sixteen rooms are all the same size and shape, any hierarchy is abolished between the positions" (4). But that statement does not correspond to the truth. In fact, a fundamental particular has escaped art historians, architects and medievalists in the examination of its architectural components. Prior to illustrating it, we need to proceed to a brief discussion about the symbolic meaning of the number eight.


On this subject Bishop Lorenzo Dattrino, professor of Patristics at the Lateran University of Rome, writes in the work Tarocchi: Arte e Magia [Tarot: Art and Magic] (5) "The Number Eight led to the formation of the noun "Ogdoad", and thus is had the whole of the eight divine determinations (Abyss and Silence, Mind and Truth, Reason and Life; Man and Community of divine life) that constitute the pleroma or fullness of the divine life, according to the Gnostic theories of the early centuries of the common era. On the number eight there is also Ambrose, giving to the number one of its symbolic meanings: “The eighth day, that of circumcision, prefigured the total cleansing from sin that would occur in the era of the Resurrection" (6).


This number is related also to the eighth day from the beginning of creation, when the universe came to life in its entirety, after God's rest on the seventh day. Christian baptisteries are octagonal, indicating rebirth, resurrection to a new life that is obtained through the water of baptism. The Virgin Mary on her mantle bears an eight-pointed star to signify her nature characterized by "fullness of life" (figure 4 - Mother of God Galaktotrofusa, Byzantine Museum, Athens). Even in the tarot there are details related to this symbolic number: in the card of the Stars (figure 5 - The Stars, Cary Sheet) depicts a naiad who wears on her shoulder an eight-pointed star as a representation of the Platonic concept of the wholeness of the life of the soul (immortal) of a heavenly origin, symbolized by an identical star in the sky (7).


The Octagon, intermediate form between the Square and the Circle, i.e. between the Human and the Divine


Returning to the Castel del Monte, as we reported, its construction is structured on the number eight: eight sides and towers, eight rooms upper and lower, while in the inner courtyard, characterized by the presence of three windows (three is the number of the soul and the Trinity) we know there once existed an octagonal one, now sadly gone. It is also possible that the Castle was surmounted by a dome, as some surveys suggest. It goes without saying that an architectural element structured as in a symbolic key needed to be designed for a very specific purpose.


Returning to the mystical significance of the number eight, Cardini writes in his work on Castel del Monte "A type of Sacred architecture, we note that a particular role belongs to the number 8 as the sum of the three numbers 1,3 and 4 – indicating the Unity, the Trinity and Matter (the elements of Empedocles are four: fire, water, air and earth) and therefore suitable to be taken as the total number of the universe and the relationship between God and God's creation .... The octagonal shape - as resulting from intersection of a circle and a concentric square (Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century spoke of the plan of an octagonal church as a circle with eight corners: so the octagon as the result of the union of straight lines through all the points at which a cross intersected with a circle in which it was inscribed) - or the overlap of two squares rotated 45 degrees - was interpreted in sacred Christian architecture as mediating between and then connecting that of the divine perfection, the circle, with that of  natural and human perfection, the square ... As the circle represented the celestial sphere and the infinite boundary of the power and wisdom of God, Eden - created by God according to the measure of perfection - was routinely depicted as round, while the heavenly Jerusalem, a perfect city but on a human scale, instead took on the contours of the square as a symbol of humanity and the four elements of which it was constituted in terms of body. But between the square and the circle, defined as polarized geometric shapes, the intermediate form was precisely the octagon: sacred architecture in fact often goes from the square of the building  plan to the circle of the dome through an octagonal cylinder" (8).


The octagon thus becomes a bridge between the circle, the divine, and the square, the human, the intermediary between the two dimensions.


Giosué Musca also writes: "So the beautiful shape of Castel del Monte was the result of many factors and was designed according to the many uses that Frederick and his builders assigned to the building: a geometric design developed not as beautiful, but as meaningful, a form like an energy station" (9). Energy necessary, therefore, for a specific purpose.


A revelatory particular


Before attaining the deciphering of the intended use of the Castle, we should note that in the Middle Ages a king was considered the representative of Christ on earth and that he was such by divine will. This meant that the sovereign, by virtue of this prerogative, should govern his own people according to the rules of fairness and justice, attributes of Divine Justice (Christ was called "Sol Justitiae").


If the octagon is the number that connects the earth to the divine, the thought of man to that of God, what form of structure would have been ideal for a gathering for making decisions or drawing insights, if not inside an octagon charged with energy? To discuss not only laws relating to policy, but also every other consideration, from the economic to the scientific, or to draw inspiration in any field of knowledge. From the point of view of medieval symbolic thought, whether to make decisions or take assessments, gathering in a place full of energy because it is considered a bridge between the terrestrial and the divine, it goes without saying that inspiration and intuition will enjoy more capacity of interpretation from the divine will from the spaces above, which are closer to heaven.


What has escaped everyone in the architecture of Castel del Monte is in fact the stone seat that runs along the perimeter of the walls of each room on the upper floor (figure 6 - Upper Room with seat / figure 7 - Window of upper room with seat below). A seat is lacking, obviously, in the rooms below, where in all probability only "agendas” were discussed, which were then resumed and deepened upstairs. Musca, like almost all other historians who have studied the Castle, did not reflect on the detail of the seat, which is, on the contrary extremely important to properly define its intended use. Only Cardini writes that "a long stone bench with back white marble runs along the inside perimeter of the room" (10), although without noticing that this does not exist in the lower rooms.


The lack of kitchens and stables, with the maintenance of necessary services and fireplaces for heating in winter, was justified by the need not to "smear" the Castle with elements that were too materialistic. In fact, kitchens and stables were obviously set up outside its walls, in wood according to the custom of the time.


Castel del Monte does not conceal anything extraordinarily hidden: there is no mystery or esoteric thinking behind its construction, both as regards the entry, characterized by a large triangular tympanum (figure 8) - the triangle is obviously correlated with number three signifying the Divine - and the presence of two lions that denote the place as a secular cathedral (the lions placed to defend the entrance of the churches sought some way to prohibit access to the church to those who were not worthy and in this case possible intruders), are in terms of the orientation of the castle facing East towards the rising Sun.


Was not in fact Frederick II the representative on earth of Christ as "Sol Justitiae"?




1 - Calogero Cammarata, Introduction to L’Esoterismo Cristiano e San Bernardo [Christian Esotericism and St. Bernard] by René Guénon, p. 13, Oggero Editore, Carmagnola, 1989.

2 - Il Mulino, Bologna, 2000.

3 - Quaderni del Centro di Studi Normanno-Svevi, Università degli Studi di Bari, Mario Adda Editore, Bari, 2006.

4 - Giosuè Musca, op. cit., p. 19.

5 - Edizioni Le Tarot, Faenza, 1987, p. 70.

6 - Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, III, 56, trans. G. Coppa, Opere di S. Ambrogio [Works of St. Ambrose], p. 468.

7 - Read on this subject the iconological essay The Stars.

8 - Franco Cardini, op. cit, p. 55, 56, 57.

9 - Giosuè Musca, op.cit, p. 33.

10 - Franco Cardini, op.cit. p. 38.


Copyright  by Andrea Vitali   © All rights reserved 2004