Upon my first walkthrough of this deck, Nigel Jackson’s Secrets of the Rose Tarot skyrocketed immediately up to my top faves. This deck is beautiful. Steeped in Christian mysticism, Cabala, hermetic theosophy, and alchemy, the Rose Tarot is a seamless tapestry of Western esotericism. Not to mention the artwork is just beautiful.
There’s a Paul Huson Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot vibe, meets an echo of the card layout design from the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg in the pips, with the color palette of a William Blake painting, all rendered in a reconstructed medieval illuminated manuscript art style. The Rose Tarot is totally my aesthetic.
In the Preface of the guidebook, Jackson opens by describing the tarot as “a language of symbols, an emblematic poem, an oracular device, a game of chance.” Surviving from the European Middle Ages, this deck has truly evolved over the centuries into a diversity of refractions. The Rose Tarot takes it back to the cards’ medieval paradigm as revelations of eschatological mysteries.
Rather than propose any new systemizations or “dogmatic structure like those advanced by Victorian occultists,” The Rose Tarot returns to the earlier tarots of 1700s Italy and France. Ooh. That’s a bit judgey, but hey, I’m still totally here for it! =) “Amid this twilight of the oracles, it becomes necessary to identify and cognize esoteric first principles.”
The introductory chapter continues: “The Rose Tarot recovers the oracle’s metaphysical orientation to the spiritual horizon of the primordial tradition.” For clarification, the primordial tradition as defined here, in that what’s designated as the first point of origins, the “source material,” is Western Europe. For context, that categorical point of view is something to keep in mind for context. By the way, click in to these images for a close-up view of all the incredible detailing!
Writes Jackson, “The Rose Tarot explores such possibilities within those Western esoteric currents of the sixteenth through early nineteenth centuries that were then called theosophia, or ‘divine wisdom.'” You’ll see pictorial expressions of arcane hermetic doctrine, such as here in The Magus, who personifies the hermetic theosopher and theurgist.
The specific color dichotomy of red and white, roses and lilies, will recur throughout the deck imagery. No detail is extraneous, and the guidebook will give you a comprehensive explanation of every key detail.
The undercurrent here, rather than, say, The Fool’s Journey, is to express the narratives for the Way of the Heart, a hermetic initiatory path with milestones represented in the cards by the rose. Like the tarot of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, The Rose Tarot depicts a salvation cycle.
Jackson describes the Major Arcana, or Magna Mysteria, the Greater Mysteries, as keys to the path of transcendent liberation, attainment of heavenly pradise or supernal Eden. Whereas the Minor Arcana, the Parva Mysteria, or Lesser Mysteries, is the perfecting of humanity, about finding your sacred center. It’s terrestrial paradise, or the lower Eden.
The four suits are also representative of the four Platonic virtues. The suit of Cups corresponds with Temperance, the suit of Swords with Justice, the suit of Batons with Strength, and the suit of Coins with Prudence. Jackson traces the four suit-emblems back to Indian Vedic traditions and its caste system (Brahminic priestly, Kshatriya warrior, Vaishya mercantile, artisanal, and agricultural, and then Shudra serf). If you revisit the deck art, you’ll see this four cardinal virtues inscribed within a Hermetic quincunx (arrangement of five) as another recurring metaphor.
The four suits further designate the fourfold elemental classifications from Masonic schools of alchemy: Fire for the solar body (the Batons), Air for the diaphanous or mercurial body of intellect and spirit (the Swords, as shown above), Water for the lunar body of the astral nature and fluidic soul (Cups), and finally, Earth for the Saturnian body of dense physical matter (Coins).
The court cards feature Biblical, mythological, and historical figures per playing card traditions. For instance, the King of Swords depicts the Biblical King David, the Queen of Swords is Pallas Athena, the Knight of Swords is unnamed, and the Knave of Swords is Ogier.
In the Queen of Swords featuring Pallas, for instance, you’ll see the owl of Minerva. The Queen of Swords symbolizes the wise arts of defensive and strategic military skills and all creative intellectual works.
The pip cards feature a narrative allegorical illustration contained within a vesica piscis leaf, a shape that was prominently used in medieval religious art, as if showing you a revelation, through a fish lens. Then the ornamental arrangement for identifying the tarot card, i.e., images of the suit symbol, like the Swords depicted here, and the number of, say, swords, is featured outside and around the vesica piscis panel.
I’ve been taking my time with The Rose Tarot, pulling a card and reading its corresponding entry in the guidebook, which always leads me on a quest for more information and further reading, almost like a form of prayer or daily devotional.
You’ll find mythical references throughout. For example, the 3 of Batons features the Grail ship of Galahad and King David’s hallowed sword while the 4 of Batons features Apollo as the Grand Geometer, just to share a few more references you’ll find throughout the cards.
The 7 of Batons features Hercules as a solar-initiatic warrior wearing the pelt of the Nemean lion. Above you’ll see the companion text for the card from the guidebook.
Or here in the 5 of Swords, we find the card’s meaning resonant with the fall of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. I love how Jackson phrases the moral lesson to learn from the 5 of Swords: “Defeat comes as a consequence of not realizing one’s own limitations.” That’s a good one. I need to jot that down into my tarot journal!
My one teensy tiny super-picky critique of the card design is the stark blank backgrounds on the pips. Each card by itself is lovely, yes. But in a reading spread, results in a visual imbalance next to the Majors and the court cards. Something really simple like a faded parchment texture for the background instead of the blank white would instantly fix the problem. Or even a light color wash, as you find on the Aces. The funny thing is, the visual imbalance wouldn’t be so noticeable if it weren’t for how really beautiful the Major Arcana illustrations are.
The guidebook centers the tarot as originating in Europe. In closing, the pages reinforce that point: “Tarot is the great oracle of the West–an enigmatic artifact and deposit of initiatory and arcane symbolism inherited from the European world.” It does, however, make one acknowledgement of the history before tarot, or the tarot’s hiero-history– before the Italian tarocchi and Spanish-Moorish cards were the Turko-Circassian and Mamluk playing cards, and before their arrival in the Middle East by way of the Silk Road, they were Tung Pai Kwan Chinese playing cards with integrations of Sino-Korean arrow divination and Eurasian shamanistic cultures.
The namesake of the deck– Secrets of the Rose Tarot– is to reference the hermetic labyrinthine rose garden where each card in this deck represents a station and degree in a pilgrimage through the heart of the rosarium of the wise. “The rose, for thousands of years, has been the preeminent esoteric emblem of secrets and mystery in the Occident and Orient: the Cabalistic treatise the Zohar preserves poetic euologies upon the mysteries of the perfumed thirteen-petalled Rose of the Supernal Israel, and Christian Hermetic esoterism similarly extols the Rose of Sharon.”
In terms of cardstock, for those who care, there’s a semi-gloss finish that gives the cards really great slip when you shuffle or fan them out across a reading table. I love this for an everyday workhorse deck.
Nigel Jackson’s Rose Tarot, published in 2021 by Llewellyn, is a must-have, especially if you’re preferred workings with the tarot is as daily meditations. You can ruminate on the multi-layered depths of symbolism in every card, each card itself a fully formed mind labyrinth.
FTC Disclosure: In accordance with Title 16 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Part 255, “Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising,” I received this deck and guidebook set from its publisher for prospective review. Everything I’ve said here is sincere and accurately reflects my opinion of the deck.