The Hermit in Art: Tarot

The tarot is an historical expression of art, with the deeply symbolic and archetypal figures of culture and lore depicted in painting and cards.

Of special interest is depiction of the hermit throughout the centuries of the tarot's existence. The earliest cards to appear in late medieval Europe depicted not a hermit but a figure called the beggar, then a beggar with angelic wings, and finally the figure called the hermit. Subsequent depictions of the hermit moved from religious to mystical but were broadly consistent, standardized in symbolic expression by the Rider-Waite-Smith cards.

Everything since Waite has been a derivation of this image, depending on the artist's premises in styling the entire deck. In fact, many artists only create stylizations that never get to the point of production as cards, the process being expensive and with a very limited market.

The following hermit representations are from major historical tarot depictions through A. E. Waite (1909).







Tarot art originated in 14th century Europe, in Italy and France. The hand-painted sets were sheets to be cut into cards.

The depiction of the Hermit varied in the earliest representations. A 1470 Ferrara manuscript of a Franciscan sermon (1) lists the trump cards of the tarot. The manuscript lists the eleventh (not ninth) card not as the Hermit but as "El Gobbo," meaning The Hunchback. Other sets of this era call this card "Il Vecchio" (The Old Man) and "Il Tempo" (Time).

The 15th century Minchiate (2) depicted the hermit as a hunchback and beggar. The 15th century Visconti-Sforza (3), painted by Bonifacio Bembo, depicts the hermit as Time, with an hourglass in his right hand, though clearly no longer a beggar. The theme of time was perhaps derived from Petrarch's imagery of the Triumphs, one of which is Time. The hourglass is included in Jacquemin Gringonneur's cards (4) for King Charles VI of France in 1392, probably the oldest set of cards, though the extant images of the cards are from the late 15th century.

An early tarot Hermit image in the Musee de Beaux Arts in France (5) depicts a beggar on crutches with angelic wings, thus suggesting an early date of origin. Nearly a century later, the Giuseppi Maria Mitelli Tarocchini (Bologna, 1665) (6) deliberately returns to this original concept of the Hermit as the lame beggar with angelic wings.







In the sixteenth century and beyond, the hourglass has become a lamp or lantern, signifying a reinterpretation of the hermit as a wisdom figure. The 1557 Geoffrey Catelin images (7) standardizes the lamp or lantern, though the figure is still and would remain "friar"-like. Thus succeeding sets are only slight variations: the early 17th century Tarot de Paris (8), the 1650 Jean Noblet Tarot de Marseille (9), and the mid-century Vieville (10). Early 18th-century decks include the Jean Dodal of Lyon (11) and the Nicolas Bodet (12), where the hermit image has not changed much, though the angelic wings have suddenly reappeared on the Bodet.

(Shown: Oswald Wirth, 1896; Waite-Smith, 1909)

The hermit image in the Waite-Smith or Rider-Waite-Smith depiction of 1909 is an informal standard. A.E. Waite rejected occultist interpretations of Court de Gebelin, Eliphas Levi, Papus, et al., but he did retain suggestive elements in many cards.  Waite denied ancient Egyptian, Kabbalistic, or Romani origins of the tarot, instead returning to medieval Christian symbolism with a strong Gnostic input based on the ideas of fellow-members of the Order of the Golden Dawn.