Tarot Philosophy: Levitate Like a Saint: Brueghel, Tarkowsky, St. Thomas Aquinas and Muhammad Ali

“Any fool with fast hands can take a tiger by the balls, but it takes a hero to keep on squeezing.” ― Stephen King

The Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525–1569) is one of the most influential artists in the history of western painting in general and painting in particular. Many of Brueghel’s paintings depict the Flemish village life which takes place in landscapes defined by early modern reality. Those paintings sometimes imply to events from the Bible or classical Mythology and generally speaking, faith and religion hover above all of them. Breughel is interested in depicting the special connection between sin and its embodiment in village life. The dramatic tension between faith and village life is achieved by the feeling that death and religion lurk, symbolically or explicitly, in every corner of our lives. 

The tension between these poles is present in the Tarot cards as well. We will study some details from two of Brueghel’s paintings and reveal similar ideas to those expressed in Tarot cards.

One of Breughel’s most impressive and terrifying paintings explicitly dealing with death is “The Triumph of Death” from 1562. The painting depicts the absolute reign of death over life. The people in the painting surrender unconditionally to death which in turn destroys any attempt from those people to attain an earthly meaning to their lives. Death’s representatives on earth are crushing life under their murderous spears and life has no hope for the future. Brueghel skillfully describes this theme on a variety of expressions: the king who lost his fortune, the beggar who lost her meager possessions, the religious believer who holds his cross in vain, the adventurer who unsuccessfully flees to the mountains, the educated man who reads his books in the midst of terror, the brave who vainly try to resist death, the musicians and artists – all of them, without exception, are doomed to surrender unequivocally to the triumph of death.

However, a detailed examination of the painting reveals that there is still hope for life. Hope is not shown explicitly in the painting but is implied by a movement toward new life made by one of the painting’s characters. The chance for a new life is embodied in the image of the fool who crawls under the table. It seems that the fool understands, contrary to the entire human inferno which surrounds him that he must do everything in his power to save his life. He crawls under the table in a quest for the unknown future and abandons his past which is represented by the dice and cards. The murderous skeletons gazes are not directed towards him so the probability of saving his life is greater than the risk of losing them. In fact, he is the only human character in the painting that has a real chance to survive the mayhem.

Placed side by side, the Tower and the Fool card show a resemblance to Breughel’s death (and survival) theme. The lightning which destroyed the tower of his old life triggered the fool to find a better future. Like Brueghel’s painting, our peaceful lives in the “tower of safety” are, following the appearance of death, heading towards a catastrophe. However, those who accept destruction as an opportunity for a new start can begin to march in those unknown paths like the fool. We can imagine the tower as a phallus after ejaculation and thus it may symbolize the debauchery before dying in Brueghel’s painting. We feel that only few of us are willing, like the fool, to forget their carnal past and without delay to break free to a new life. This is a break in consciousness which involves a significant change of all we knew until now. We have to “levitate” above our current reality and personal choices to the creation of a new reality.

Speaking about “levitation” we can mention the intuitive link to Christ levitating above the Sea of Galilee water. The linkage between levitation and spiritual powers revealed to man in the process of enlightenment appears in eastern religions as well. In Hinduism the Guru has the spiritual power to levitate above the ground during meditation and even during sleep. One of the miracles of Buddhism mentions Buddha levitating above the water with his legs crossed. But not only in the Eastern religions: throughout history, mystics, psychics and various theosophists claimed for some ability of levitation. The most famous philosopher whose name has been linked to the phenomenon of levitation is the medieval scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). 

In 1272 Aquinas left the University of Paris in order to establish a new Dominican Order in Naples. As the head of the new order, Aquinas could manage it as he pleased. But a year later something happened to Aquinas in Naples: In the 6th December 1273 Aquinas seemed to levitate in the air while praying before the icon of the crucified Christ with tears running down his cheeks. According to Christian tradition, Jesus turned to Aquinas and said, “You wrote so beautifully about me. What is the prize you ask for your work?” and Aquinas replied, “I do not need anything but you, my lord.” 

After the levitation experience Aquinas stopped writing philosophy, he abandoned his daily routine and refused to dictate his teachings to his students. When his disciples begged him that he will begin to write philosophy again Aquinas replied, “I can’t, everything I have written seems like straw to me.” The supernatural experience of levitation has changed Aquinas forever; he could not be the man he was.

The association between levitation and Brueghel’s paintings becomes more significant through the work of Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–1986). His movie “Solaris” displays a particularly long-shot on Breughel’s work from 1565 “Hunters in the Snow”. Generally, we can say that Solaris is one of the most sophisticated science-fiction movies ever made. Solaris explores the possibilities of the human mind to create a new humanity as the film’s central theme is love as a force that disintegrates and integrates worlds. The disintegration of any rational explanation for love in our current logical world pushes the movie into the abyss of cosmological madness. The abyss is located in an endless vortex where the unfamiliar fourth dimension of love ends the journey in space. Memory, fantasy, collective delusions – Solaris is an immersion in a parallel universe, a paradoxical world where the present confronts the past, fantasy challenges reality, sleep meets death, and of course – gravity meets levitation. Tarkovsky’s movies float in the midst of these paradoxical realities and that’s what makes them so disturbing and profound.

The scene which presents a long-shot of “Hunters in the Snow” is called “Levitation”. It shows the loss of gravity in the room where the painting is hanged. But as we have seen, Tarkovsky’s movies offer a profounder kind of levitation which is performed between our imagination, dreams and reality. The painting depicts hunters and their dogs returning to their small village: the fierce winter is cold, the hunting loot is quite scant, the hunters stare quietly at the snowy ground, the dark dogs tremble, the naked tree branches are piercing like knives – all contribute to the hostile and gloomy atmosphere of the painting. However, in the background we see cheerful children skating, playing games, falling and frolicking. Thus, according to Brueghel the return to childhood always accompanies the impossible mixture of a hostile environment with a sense of playfulness and game. Our childhood memories are a paradoxical combination of hostility with sweetness: we return to our intimate childhood memories which are wrapped with layers of sweetness and tenderness but fear and hostility are integral components of those memories as well. Finally, we wake up from our dreams, drenched in sweat and for a few moments we levitate. We levitate because we are in the midst of dream and reality: on the one hand we can still feel the dream’s tenderness on the other hand we are trying to make sense of dread. The combination of sweetness with horror is the only truth we know, and we levitate spiritually. In fact, after a few moments, all that remains for us is a reflection. We dismiss the matter by telling ourselves that “This was just a dream” but the nature of this reflection, which always strives to an objective perspective is exactly what Tarkovsky seeks to refute. In his view, science strips reality from its true emotions and thus only his art (or Breughel’s) can conquer the exiting realms of emotion and imagination.

The Moon card of the Tarot depicts the ungraspable line between dream and reality, imagination and rational science. The moon is our cosmic mother: before we go to sleep, we ask her to keep us from harm coming in our dreams and also to give them their positive meaning. She is femininity who is endowed with deep intuition and has the ability to understand the deep meaning of our dreams. We notice the same mysterious and dreamlike atmosphere of Brueghel’s paintings in the card: the magical moon threatens to expose the secret thoughts from our deep water of the soul and she entices the dogs and the world around her to float into her lap. Like Tarkovsky, the card shows us that the understanding of our dreams cannot rely only on rational tools. The moon attracts the dogs to stare at her and forget their natural environment, the cancer is emerging from its safety rocks and the drops float in air against the laws of nature. Late at night, when imagination and dream begin their reign on our minds, we fly to the planet of Solaris, to the paintings of Brueghel, to the mind’s hidden alchemy.

The famous boxer Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) was known for his speed and amazing flexible body. One of his tricks was done as he turned his back to the public in the arena, pressed his heels together and then seemed to levitate a few inches above the ground. As he converted to Islam Ali claimed that Islam forbids cheating and explained that it was just an illusion. Ali had a remarkable ability to stand on the tip of his left thumb and then lean his weight on it so it looked as if he was levitating. One of Ali’s famous quotes is “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. We can now conclude that after Ali converted to Islam his famous quote could be rephrased:  He levitated like a fool not to get stung by his being.

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