The Pierpont-Morgan Bergamo tarocchi "Love" card (mid-1400s) shows a handsome young man advancing from the left and a beautiful woman standing to the right, both in medieval clothing reflecting royal status, as if they were reiterations of the Empress and Emperor. They are meeting and shaking hands below an upright, blindfolded Cupid who appears to be ready to drop an arrow onto the man's head. The contemporary Cary-Yale Visconti portrays the same couple but on opposite sides, in a manicured garden under a sumptuous canopy furnished with a bright red couch. A blindfolded cherub flying above is now about to drop the arrow on the woman. This image too was called Love. Kaplan, in Volume 2 of his Encyclopedia, likens these images to "betrothal portraits" popular in Germany and later in Italy. Such portraits typically show the couple linked by Cupid, who carries two arrows but no bow. The arrows are meant "that they might love each other equally" (p. 164). The Charles VI Tarot from 1470-80 calls this Arcanum the Lovers, and shows several couples dancing and romancing; two cherubs are at the ready, bows drawn, to pierce some members of the crowd with their barbs of love. Kaplan, in Volume 1 of his Encyclope-dia, says the Lovers card is represented in the Mantegna Tarocchi (1470) by cards No. 20, Apollo, and No. 43, Venus, suggesting the identities of the royal couple who come together under the auspices of this Arcanum. The Rosenwald Tarot cards from the sixteenth century reveal a man on bended knee before a woman, while above them a blindfolded angel with female breasts and male genitals prepares to shoot the woman in the heart with an arrow of love. Note that this ambivalent gender association shows up a century later as one characteristic of the "new" Devil Arcanum influenced by the reforms of the 1660s. We know this angel is not meant to be a devil figure, however, because the wings are dis-tinctly feathered rather than black and leathery as would be those of a demon. In the mid-1600s we enter a time of mixed influences. This card tends to have a large numbers of variants through the years, giving us numerous subtle changes in interpretation from one pack to another. Several that might be especially interest-ing are mentioned below. But the image that eventually became standard, first on the Marseilles family of Tarots and later on Etteilla and all the French Esoteric cards, was the Two Paths, showing a young man at a fork in the road, standing between two women who represent different possible destinies for him. This image first shows up on the Jacques Vieville and Jean Noblet Tarots, both from the early 1660s in France.
By the early seventeenth century, the anonymous Parisian Tarot shows a very quizzical version of the Lovers. The woman appears on the right, human but with what seems to be gray angel wings that match those of the cherub overhead. Her gaze and hands are focused on his lap. We see him diagonally from behind as he straddles a hassock, looking at her face and embracing her chest. The cherub has an arrow ready to release, pointing at the man. Is he receiving sexual attention from an angel? Is this love or lust? Gioseppe Maria Mitelli's Tarot (1664) does not help us with this question, as he shows only the chubby cupid standing on earth though possessing wings, arrows holstered, wearing a blindfold.
He holds a flaming heart in his left hand. One Tarot from 1750 shows an interesting variation (Tarocco Siciliano cards). This pack presents the Arcana in a different numerical order than usual, so the Lovers image is numbered 8 instead of 6. A woman and a man are in the open landscape, the requisite cherub on a cloud above them. The cherub's bow is drawn, ready to shoot the man. This man is caught in a moment of shock, recoiling at what the woman is presenting. She is holding up another arrow, which has apparently already been released into her. It seems the man is not as receptive and peaceful with the prospect of love as the woman!
Aside from these amusing but inconclusive variations, the primary image for the Lovers goes forward as some variation on the "new" (in the 1660s) Two Paths image. In that formulation, the young man (the Magus?) who is standing at a fork in the road must choose between a modest angel and a primitively dressed nature girl (meant to imply sexual availability). Between them, the two women represent virtue and vice. The cherub is aiming the arrow at the man in the center of the image as if to imply that the responsibility for all consequences of this Choice will be borne by the chooser (meaning the person who draws this card).
The main variant of the Choice card is shown by the Jean Payen, Marseilles, Court de Gebelin, N. Conver and Vandenborre Tarots. All show a marriage ceremony being performed by an older priestess who stands in the same position the "vice" woman would have, to the left of the young man. This produces the same silhouette as The Choice, but the temptress image is replaced by the priestess (or Holy Mother) image.
. This priestess is ceremonially uniting the couple at a crossroads in the manner of a pagan handfasting. The priestess sometimes has her back turned to the viewer of the card, which can make it unclear whether she is older and making a marriage or younger and competing with the bride for the attentions of the young man. Usually the artist will have taken the time to detail a headdress for the extra woman if she is meant to be more than a flirtatious competitor of the bride. In each case, the cherub hovers overhead either targeting the groom or aiming between the bride and groom. Almost never are either of the women made the explicit target of the cherub's arrow. A modern version appears in the F. Gumppenberg Tarot, 1807-1815 (Kaplan's Encyclopedia Volume 2, p. 344). This card shows a beautiful young girl having to choose between a young king and a handsome warrior. The cherub is aiming at the warrior, while the young king is trying to pull her away with him. Even in this case, it is not the girl who is in the sights of the cherub! There must be an implicit lesson showing through in this Arcanum, implying as they all do that in this kind of situation the man (symbolically the ego and the will) is the deciding factor rather than the woman (referencing the heart).
Etteilla returns the Lovers to the church, now presided over by a priest in the nave of his chapel. We have no particular evidence to link Etteilla to the Church, although we can now be sure that he was a Mason and esteemed among his peers. He may be echoing the Adam C. de Hautot Tarot (1740s) or the Sebastian Ioia Tarot (mid- to late 1700s), both of which show the sacred marriage being performed by a man. But it is just as likely that Etteilla picked this version of the Lovers card because it allows him to transplant the Heirophant onto the Lovers Arcanum. In this way he frees up one card to name after himself: No. 1, Etteila (also called "le Consultant" and "Ideal") implying, it seems, that he is the Heirophant of the Tarot. In other Etteilla-style Tarots, this card gets the label Chaos, which in light of the Poimandres theme that Etteilla was following, was referring to the primordial state before creation began.
The Lando Tarot is less specific about which version of the Lovers we are seeing, but in any case it includes the classic "Two Paths" silhouette. Even the Milanese Tarot by F. Gumppenberg (late eighteenth or early nineteenth century), which is the deck the individual members of the Golden Dawn school were instructed to work with before they each created their own personal decks, shows the Two Paths/Marriage formula.
The Waite-Smith Tarot offers a surprising formulation of this Arcanum, depicting a naked Adam and Eve apparently before the events of the "fall." He stands on the right before a tree with ten flaming leaves (representing the Kabbalah Tree) and she on the left before a tree laden with red fruit and where a serpent is climbing into its branches. One can say that Waite is projecting the Bembo-style Royal Couple backward into the primordial myth, and reminding us of our august origins, our original divine natures, before we misused our powers of will. A similar Adamo & Eva card exists from a card game called Labyrinth by Andrea Ghisi (1616), and perhaps that is what Waite is referencing.
In choosing to add these Gnostic and Hebrew implications to the meeting of the Queen and the King, he has superimposed a biblical mythos onto an otherwise pagan Sacred Marriage image. This has not been a bad thing in itself‹Waite's Lovers card is one of my favorites in his Tarot. But in so doing he left aside the important lesson of The Choice at the crossroads, the challenge to mature and commit, which has been the dilemma of the young man on the Lovers Arcanum since the 1660s. He also eliminated the Priestess, representing feminine Wisdom, the link to the Sophia bonding force that draws the partners together and binds them over time. The Lovers card in all its glory and variety has referred to the sex/love/commitment/consequences continuum and how to stay balanced within it. This card has been more variable than some because there are so many nuances of opinion about sex and relationship across cultures and centuries. But doubtless this Arcanum is about the issues raised by real human relationships, since the protagonist is shown in the act of making a life-changing choice. One cannot have it all. To partake of a higher ideal requires self discipline. The path of pleasure eventually leads to distraction from spiritual growth. The gratification of the personality eventually gives way to the call from spirit as the soul matures.