In the next installment of our series on the tarot major arcana, we’re going to go over the history and symbolism behind the card everyone hopes to see in a reading – The Lovers. While most of the cards we’ve gone over thus far have stayed fairly true to their origins in terms of imagery, the Lovers has had many different portrayals throughout history, each dependent on the region and time period it was created in.
In the original Visconti decks, the card was simply referred to as “Love” or “L’Amore ” and was meant to depict two people being married. In the Visconti di Midrone we see real life couple Bianca Visconti and Francesco Sforza being married underneath an umbrella bearing the crests of Visconti’s parents, the Duke of Milan and the Duchess of Savoy. The word “AMOR” is also emblazoned on the umbrella in gold. The umbrella is meant to symbolize protection of their union by Visconti’s family while a small white dog pictured at their feet is meant to symbolize their fidelity. A blindfolded Cupid can be seen flying overhead, but, while he is equipped with a bow and arrow, he does not aim it at the couple. This could be an implication that the marriage, like most marriages between aristocratic families, was arranged and based on strategy rather than any real courtship between the two parties. Considering this is a marriage, you might wonder why there are no rings present. During this time, marriages were sealed with a hand clasp, similar to the way many of us might make a casual deal with a friend, as opposed to an exchanging of rings. In the Visconti Sforza, we see the same union depicted ten years later, with hands still clasped and Cupid still abstaining from using his bow and arrow. Cupid is now a more mature young boy versus his toddler-esque depiction in the Midrone card which provides clues about the time change. In the Charles VI tarocchi deck, Bianca and Francesco are depicted standing between two other couples. Two opposing Cupids, both sans blindfold, aim their bows and arrows at the unwed couples below, sending a clear message to them to get married and have children.
(Pictured left to right: Visconti di Midrone, Visconti Sforza, and Charles VI Tarocchi)
We see a clear emphasis on the link between love and marriage in the Visconti decks, which, as noted in previous articles, were specifically commissioned for aristocratic families. Lower working class peoples did not have as much pressure to marry into specific families, and thus mass-produced tarot decks used by the lower class during this time chose to depict a more romantic version of marriage, in which a blindfolded Cupid (encompassing the principle “Love is blind”) shoots their bow and arrow at a woman being courted by a man. The title of this card is still the singular “Love”.
(Pictured: Rosenwald Tarocchi)
Fast forward to the introduction of the French Marseille tarot, which carries the title “L’Amoureux”. Here we see a man depicted between two women with a blindfolded Cupid pointing his arrow overhead. It is not clear what roles the two women play – are they wife and mother-in-law, wife and sister, or wife and mistress? Occultist Elipas Levi posed another set of options – vice and virtue. In the deck based on his writings – the Oswald Wirth Tarot – we see the path before the protagonist begins to fork as it extends out in front of him. He must make the choice between a life of responsibility and one of temptation. Cupid, pointing his arrow at the protagonist overhead, is backlit by the sun’s rays, depicted as three-sided interloping triangles to suggest the alchemical marriage of soul and spirit. These depictions of Love emphasize the choice of the querent to enter a romantic partnership as opposed to the partnership itself.
(Pictured: Rolichon Marseille Tarot)
The Rider-Waite deck created by Arthur Edward Waite, which is the most popular depiction of the archetypes, depicts the Lovers within the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve receiving blessings from the angel Raphael. Adam is backed by a tree sprouting several flames, while Eve is backed by the iconic Tree of Life wrapped with the serpent. The three figures are interpreted as a trinity between the conscious, unconscious, and superconscious mind. It’s worth looking at the Devil card in contrast, which almost appears like a parody of the Lovers card. Raphael has been replaced by Baphomet, and Adam and Eve are now wearing loose-fitting chains, while backed by darkness. Interestingly, the Devil in the Rider-Waite is actually older than the Lovers, with the origins of its imagery coming from the Marseille decks. Waite and Smith worked backwards, showing the perfect version of what has now become a destructive relationship.
(Pictured: The Rider-Waite Tarot)
So how do we take all this and use it to inform our interpretation of the card in a tarot reading? The concept of love as we know is not exclusive to romance. There is the love we have for our friends, for our family members, and for ourselves. When we show love to another person we are extending to them our compassion and vulnerability. We are hoping to improve their life in the same manner that they have improved ours. Self-love is similar in that we care for ourselves out of a desire to see our own lives get better. When the Lovers appears in a reading, it is pointing to the energy of investing in something or someone simply because it gives you joy. There is no expectation or judgement. The investment itself is the reward. Some people see the card as being the marriage of the Emperor and the Empress by the Hierophant in the previous three cards, leading to further interpretations of the card as being a literal suggestion of marriage, but it should be noted that the card can still appear in readings that have nothing to do with love. Say you’re asking a question about which college to apply to and you see the Lovers. Your immediate thought might be “Well, I just need to go to the school where my significant other is going”. But say you’re single and don’t have a significant other. The card could signify that the school you are most passionate about is the one worth pursuing. Knowing this might be helpful if you’re concerned about finances or other factors that could limit your ability to attend your dream school. Working in the romance angle, if your parents went to that same college, it further supports making that choice, but as I mentioned before the card is mainly about the love the querent feels for something or someone else. We mentioned the Devil earlier, and will elaborate more on that card’s meaning in a future post, but it should be restated that the Lovers card represents a happy and healthy union. There is balance and fairness between the two parties and neither is being treated unfairly. The lesson here is that true love will evoke these qualities.
How do we see the archetype depicted in other decks? In the Wild Unknown Tarot by Kim Krans, humans have been replaced by a pair of wild geese flying perfectly in sync with one another, radiating a prismatic rainbow. While simple in its rendering, the imagery beautifully portrays the sense of harmony, balance, and reciprocity that is at the core of the card’s meaning.
(Pictured: The Wild Unknown Tarot)
The Vox Arcana deck, a collaboration between multiple artists, features a rendition of the Lovers by Noemi De Maio. De Maio casts her pairing as the star of their own musical, with the imagery being reminiscent of iconic wheat-paste posters advertising shows on Broadway. Even though this is clearly a performance of love, the “actors” are still moving together in harmony. As the old adage goes “Acting is reacting”, and the performers are relying on one another to execute their roles well. Both of them are trusting the other to follow through on the lines and blocking they’ve memorized and reciprocate because the result will bring joy to both of them. This definitely encapsulates the traditional qualities of the card, even though the union seems less about passion for each other and more for the success of the show they’re performing in.
(Pictured: Vox Arcana Tarot)
In the Santa Muerte Tarot by Fabio Listrani, a deck that features skeletons in place of the living, shows a couple holding the iconic Sacred Heart (a Catholic portrayal of a flaming heart, symbolizing the transformative power of God’s love). The heart displays a keyhole with the corresponding key seen hovering above them, sporting angel wings and radiating light in all directions. There are nods to the Rider-Waite imagery with the portrayal of a couple and celestial figure seen above them. This version of the card emphasizes the vulnerability that we experience when we give love to others and does this in a universal way that isn’t explicitly romantic via the potential unlocking of the heart by the key.
(Pictured: The Santa Muerte Tarot)
Even though we can see now that the Lovers is not all about romance or soul mates, we can still be excited to see it in a tarot reading. If all is well it can be an affirmation that we are in harmony with the world around us and giving love authentically If things are not going well, it provides us a solution to make things better. True love will always help to restore chaotic or disruptive situations to a state of balance and peace. Use its appearance as a signal to give love more authentically in your own life, to yourself, other people, and the world at large.
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