Whenever that perennial question comes up among seasoned tarotists – you know; “which tarot deck do you wish existed?” – and everyone rhapsodises over nerdy Science Fiction illustrators that I have never heard of – in my mind’s eye this is the deck I think I always visualised. In fact, I think I have already said elsewhere that a deck with 17th Century Netherlandish (or did I say Flemish?) engravings is what I have always wished for. And here – gadzbodikins – (to be authentically 17th Century) it is. In a sense, my search for the perfect tarot deck has actually come to an end now, but I shalln’t let it stop me. Other decks will charm and seduce me and press upon me the urge to be bought – but this is the one I have always secretly wished for. Because I always knew that there was something about engravings such as Hendrik Goltzius´ and his school – which would lend itself, with great panache, to the rich and emblematic iconography of tarot.
Ostensibly a dark deck for Samhain moods – because it’s almost that time of year again – this deck by Seven Stars seems to me so timeless, so eternally artful, that the season in which we use it should be the least of our concerns. When you hold it in your hand, it drips with richness, history and gloomy refinement. A sort of macabre, contemplative, elegiac litany of 78 unhinged vignettes. To get the facts out of the way – it is currently available in three sizes; Bridge (2.25″ X 3.5″), Tarot (2.75″ X 4.75″) and Large ( 3.5″ X 5.75″). I opted for Large because I am greedy for as much visual feasting as possible and knew I would want to gorge on this one. There are also padded “Mausoleum Pouches” for the deck (see bottom of post), which have a zip-up fastener and (as expected) a mausoleum print front and back. When I first spoke to Seven Stars about this deck, she spoke about it being a sort of crazy mish mash (perhaps those were not her exact words) of styles and so I expected something a bit more jagged and roughly hewn, but despite the variety of styles (because the deck is not entirely 17th Century), it all hangs together incredibly well. There are, as mentioned above, some 17th Century Netherlandish engravings, as well as a few “Dance of Death” woodcuts, Jacobean and Rococo portraits, Victorian sentimentality, turbanned exoticism, anatomical engravings, Biblical and Dantean (Doré?) scenes and is that a Blake nymph levitating in the 4 of Swords? There is so much to pick out and yet what I love is that most of these images (for me at least) are relatively uncommon in terms of art reproduction. It’s a pet hate of mine – taking images that have already been reproduced to high heaven, inserting a mitre, turning them into a hierophant and hoping we won’t notice. These are all relatively unfamiliar images. Either that or they are blended so skillfully (as is the case with the 4 of Swords, below left, to name but one) that they create a striking new image.
The collaging is expertly accomplished. I feel this is perhaps Seven Stars’ best deck yet. I recognise a few favourite artists in here – Lucas van Leyden is used (Young Man with Skull) for the Page of Swords, a Dürer for the Ace of Cups and I recognise The Devil aloft from one of those fabulous “Witches’ Sabbath” engravings (probably anonymous), while Goya’s Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters features in the 5 of Cups. King James I of England and VI of Scotland appears on the King of Cups – he was emotionally weak on a grand scale when it came to handsome courtiers but he was the King who most heavy handedly persecuted witches (thus linking him nicely to The Devil card). Empress Josephine is the Queen of Swords and I am sure that Goltzius himself is the hand responsible for the cherub in the Ace of Wands, leaning on a skull, golden curls aflutter in the breeze. I may be wrong but I think the straining muscles carrying 10 wands might well be by Master Rubens himself, the exuberant virtuoso of 17th Century Netherlandish painting. I recognise so many of these posturing, manneristic fragments from my art studies and cannot always put names to them. I like that though. They worked their way into my visual store bank many years ago and now return as divination.
I must make special mention of the Court Cards which are all taken from portrait paintings – some are earlier woodcuts from the 16th Century, while others are more in the 18th Century state portrait vein. Court Cards can be a bit of a deal-breaker for a deck if they don’t have enough attributes or evident, forceful character (and god knows there are enough bland courts out there ruining otherwise good decks). I absolutely love these ones – but then I have always had a penchant for historic portraits with their hidden symbolism and languid finesse. But beware; these ones have been tweaked with subtle ghastliness; a yawning skeleton looms behind the ermin-clad periwigged King of Wands, a grinning skeleton shadows the (undoubtedly French) King of Swords. I love the Queen of Cups, slumbering – because Queens of Cups must be dreamy – amongst the folds of her drapery. There is simply so much in this deck which haunts and thrills. Seven Stars has taken high art and made it readable (where some other collage decks have floundered). Each image is held within an elaborate, intricate, oval gothic vignette with hourglasses, crossbones and pentagrams fading into grimy sepia. Obvious point perhaps but this deck has no colour. Everything is depicted in varying shades of sepia (although the card backs – a kaleidoscope of damned souls, also available as a reading mat – have red blotches). Maybe it’s this which unifies it and gives it such a distinct atmosphere. If it were excessively coloured it wouldn’t have that feeling of 78 frontispieces from magickal tomes – with a hint of tombstone slabs – which it has. As I have the large size they feel more like pages to be turned. I am especially taken with the extra (not title) card which is included – see top of post, right hand side – which is the only card with colour; skulls with ribbons of texts, a Christ figure alongside a resurrected, worm-eaten skeleton entwined in gothic vaulting and with Seven Stars’ insignia. It is such a beautiful card and I have left it in the deck. At first I thought of it as a Significator card of sorts, but now I use it as a sort of lid. I have developed this habit of late – placing any extra cards like a lid, face down on a deck to close it. This particular card works well for this – like a coffin lid – keeping the anarchic, loose spirits of the deck in check. Or like those screaming skulls that have to be bricked up in the alcoves of haunted houses so as not to torment us. The Deck of the Dead needs to be closed and silenced after use.
To the touch, the deck uses (copied from the site) Premium 310gsm casino quality French cardstock which is plastic coated (linen finish) and which I like very much (although waterproof cardstock is available on request). It feels durable, slightly slippery, flexible and yet the deck as a whole feels comfortingly heavy (but remember that I have the large size). The deck does not come with a Little White Book and packaging is minimal. I’m perfectly happy with this – it’s like “cut the crap, just give me the decks I want”. Seven Stars has excelled herself. A mass market publisher just wouldn’t even dare.