man playing with tarot cards

The 9 most common Tarot symbols in art

The 9 most common Tarot symbols in art

For many people, a tarot symbol can be a powerful and mystical force that guides their daily activities and lifetime destinies. For others, they are simply a fascinating belief system, but ultimately they do not ascribe a great deal of power to them.

Finally, there are others who fear these symbols and believe they deal with dark powers. Whatever group you happen to fall into, it's worth examining how common the mystical symbols are in our everyday lives. Whether it's portrayed on the TV, movies, the Internet, or traditional forms of art, the symbols are ubiquitous.

rider waite tarot deck

One of the most visible examples of tarot in art is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck This deck is one of the most popularly portrayed decks of tarot symbol in modern popular culture, and has been featured very prominently in the artwork associated with 60's and 70's era rock bands.

To view a full example of all the different tarot symbols in the Ride-Waite-Smith deck, we recommend that you visit the following Wikipedia link:

This deck dates back to the 19th century, and was developed by the renowned occultist Eliphas Levi. One of the most controversial changes that Levi made from older decks is that he removed any trace of Christian imagery that had been present in previous decks. For example, the Pope was replaced with the Hierophant and the Papess was replaced with the High Priestess. These changes caused a great deal of animosity between Christian groups and tarot cards, which continues to exist to this present day.


man playing with tarot cards

The deck itself is composed of extremely iconic artwork that was all created by Levi as lithographic plates. The artwork has been featured in a number of album covers, such as Led Zeppelin's IV album which used The Hermit card's depiction of an old man gathering twigs. The rock musical Hair also used the Ride-Waite-Smith deck's depiction of The Lovers as a prominent piece of their stage art.

The 9 most popular symbols and their meanings 

While there are many examples of the tarot in art, it's worth examining the 9 most important and frequently occurring ones. We have also given a brief explanation of the significance of their symbolism and some ways they may be interpreted. Please keep in minding that interpreting these symbols can be extremely tricky and should only be attempted by an experienced practitioner. It is very easy to misinterpret the symbols and the messages behind each symbol, and acting without proper understanding can have dire consequences.

9) Wheel of Fortune 

wheel of fortune tarot card

Sometimes depicted as a game of chance, other times depicted as a torture machine, the Wheel of Fortune almost always represents a reversal of fortunes. This reversal is not always in favor of the Querent, however, as it can indicate wealth changing into poverty or love into loneliness. Great care must be taken in interpreting this card.

The wheel is often inscribed with the letters T-A-R-O and R-O-T-A to indicate its constantly changing and circular nature. Additionally, a sphinx is often depicted sitting atop the wheel as a reminder that the turbulence of fortune can be weathered if we keep our wits about us. An example of the Wheel of Fortune in classical art is Edward Burn-Jones' work titled "The Wheel of Fortune" which depicts the goddess Fortuna next to eponymous wheel. The painting can be viewed at this Wikipedia link.

8) The Emperor

The Emperor is almost always portrayed in art as a powerful man sitting atop a high throne. He typically wields a scepter and wears a crown, or is adorned with other symbols of authority. He often (but not always) is depicted as an elderly man exuding an air of wisdom. Of all the mystical symbols, the Emperor has remained essentially unchanged in his art depictions for the longest of any of the symbols.

He is the essential symbol of male authority and power, and is the ultimate ruler of the world. The Emperor also indicates the imposition of authority in the Querent's life, and can be a sign that the Querent will soon be subject to new rules and regulations. An example of The Emperor in classical art is "Emperor Caligula on Horseback" by Adriaen Collaert. This piece can be viewed here.

7) The Fool

The Fool Tarot card

The Fool's appearance tends to change drastically from deck to deck. Sometimes depicted as a young girl, other times depicted as a court jester in motley, The Fool can be a symbol of naivety or stupidity. However, it can also be easily misinterpreted and some of its more nuanced themes overlooked.

One famous example of the Fool in classic art is Cecil Collins' painting also titled "The Fool." Produced in 1943, this famous painting depicts a fool wearing a dunce cap and vivid colored clothing napping during the day. You can view this painting by clicking on this link.

6) Justice 

One of the more mercurial symbols, Justice's portrayal in art has taken many forms over the years. However, the one thing that does usually remain the same is that a balanced scale is featured prominently in its depiction. Usually portrayed as a blindfolded woman, Justice often represents equality and finality. Other portrayals of Justice show her as a winged, furious angel wielding a flaming sword and delivering divine judgement.

A Querent who receives Justice in their reading should be mindful of having more than their fair share, and should take great care to treat others with respect. However, another interpretation of Justice is that it could indicate that the Querent will be receiving restitution for a past injustice that they suffered. An example of Justice in classical art is Michelangelo's "Lady Justice" sculpture which can be viewed here.

5) The Hermit 

the hermit tarot card

The artwork depicting the Hermit in various decks has changed very little over the past few centuries. The Hermit is always portrayed as an elderly man with a long white beard who lives on the fringes of society. He carries with him a staff upon which is perched a lantern to light his way, and he is clad in shabby robes to further indicate that he does not fit in with regular society. An example of The Hermit in classical art is "St. Paul the Hermit" by Mattia Preti. This piece of art can be viewed here.

4) The Magician 

Another card that has seen significant redesigns over the course of its life has been the Magician card. Depictions of the Magician have ranged from jugglers to mountebanks to traditional Gandalf-style wizards depicted in high fantasy. Regardless of the form he takes, the Magician is almost always portrayed as a man who is in possession of abilities that other men lack. He is typically interpreted as being an individual who bridges the gap between heaven and earth. An example of The Magician in ancient art is "The Magi", a classical Greek-Persian fresco which was painted anonymously. It can be viewed here.

3) The Hanged Man

the hanged man tarot card

The design of the Hanged Man has been altered drastically over the years, and has changed to be a reflection of society's attitudes towards corporal punishment and hanging in particular. During the time period that it was originally designed, the Hanged Man was a depiction of a man being hung upside down by his ankle as this was a common means of punishment in Italy. However, the design has evolved over the years to show various renditions on this theme, including depictions of Judas or depictions of a hangman at the gallows. An example of the Hanged Man in modern art is Atanas A. Atanassov's "The Hanged Man", which can be viewed here.

2) The Devil 

The depictions of the Devil are almost innumerable, as he represents the face of ultimate evil and everything that is in opposition to humanity. In any given deck, the appearance of the Devil is almost always unique to that deck. In some decks he is depicted as an enslaver of humanity, in others a red-skinned torturer, and in others a mystical symbol of unknowable wisdom. An example of The Devil in classical artwork is "The Hell" in Orvieto Cathedral, which can be viewed here.

1) Death 

Death tarot card

Similar to the Devil, the forms that Death takes on are vast and varied. He is usually depicted as a grim force, and is drawn in a dark color palette with lots of blacks and grays with an occasional splash of red and white. One of the most common misinterpretations of this card is that it represents a literal, physical death.

In actuality, a skilled reader will advise that Querent that this card actually represents a metaphorical death and indicates that a new phase in the Querent's life is about to begin. One of the most famous portrayals of Death in classical art is Van Gogh's "Head of a Skeleton Smoking a Burning Cigarette." This painting can be viewed by clicking this link.


‚ÄčI hope you enjoyed this article that shed light on a less known perspective of Tarot. I personally love how Tarot inspired artist during the centuries. If you know a nice piece of art with Tarot that I have missed feel free to leave a comment.

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