Monday, November 22, 2021

The Emperor's orb

Visconti-Sforza (c. 1451, restored), Pierre Madenié (1709),
Oswald Wirth (1889, revised 1926), Rider-Waite (1910)

Emperor cards typically feature the Reichsadler, the scepter, and the globus cruciger. How exactly these are incorporated into the card varies widely from deck to deck.

The Reichsadler -- a black eagle displayed on a gold field -- was the emblem of the Holy Roman Emperors prior to the 15th century, when it was replaced by the double-headed eagle. Bembo's Visconti-Sforza card puts this emblem on a vaguely shield-shaped headdress which does not, so far as I know, resemble anything worn by any historical emperor, and which almost looks more like a mitre than a crown. The Marseille tradition (as typified by Madenié, even though his cards were actually made in Dijon), puts it on a shield -- the traditional "coat of arms." Wirth combines this shield and the throne into a cubic stone marked with the Reichsadler. Waite eliminates the eagle entirely, replacing it with the Aries imagery demanded by his astrological schema.

Bembo's scepter is a simple rod with no ornament at the top. The Marseille tradition tops it with the globus cruciger; Wirth, with a stylized fleur-de-lis. Waite makes the scepter resemble both the Egyptian ankh and the Mesopotamian rod-and-ring.

The emblem I want to focus on here, though, is the globus cruciger, or orb.

Looking at this close-up of the original Visconti-Sforza card (top left), we can see that the "restored" version I used above (because it is clearer) has been restored incorrectly. The orb is topped with a cross pattée atop a short, narrow pedestal, and the orb itself is marked with zigzag ("indented") lines, suggestive of a cracking egg. These form a circle around the equator and a semicircle connected the equator to the north pole, where the cross is.

Where Bembo had put the orb in the Emperor's left hand, the Marseille tradition (top right) puts it at the end of his scepter, thus strengthening the axis mundi symbolism of the latter by making the axis of an actual globe. Having no orb to hold, the Emperor's left hand appears to be holding his own belt. The orb has the same general form as Bembo's, but instead of indented lines, we have have bands of a different color. In many Marseille cards, including Pierre Madenié's, there is also a second, much smaller globus cruciger at the top of the Emperor's crown.

Wirth puts the orb back in the Emperor's hand and gives it the same general form as the Marseille version, but it is idiosyncratic in two ways. First, the orb itself is green, in contrast to the otherwise universal use of gold, both for Tarot cards and for real-world crown jewels. The second oddity is the diminutive size of the cross, also something that has no analogue of which I am aware either in pre-Wirth Tarot or in the real world. The whole point of the globus cruciger symbolism is Christ's dominion over the world, and so the cross is typically about as large as the orb itself.

Orbs with a much smaller cross, though rare to nonexistent among crown jewels, do sometimes appear in paintings of Christ himself in his role as salvator mundi. In such paintings, the orb is also a direct representation of the world rather than of a royal accoutrement, and as such it is often transparent or blue in color rather than gold. The closest parallel I can find in art to Wirth's orb is this Brazilian icon of Christ as a child. Perhaps a bit more digging (this one is straight off Wikipedia) would turn up some similar image from Wirth's neck of the woods.

Another significant feature of Wirth's orb is where it is held relative to the Emperor's body, so that the center of the globe -- the omphalos -- coincides with the presumed location of the Emperor's own navel. Mormons may make of this, and of the Emperor's protruding right knee, what they will.

Waite returns the orb to its traditional gold color but eliminates the cross entirely. While some salvator mundi images (such as Leonardo's) do omit the cross and feature a simple globe, Waite's is not a simple globe, either. Where the cross should be, there is a little nub, almost as if it were the pedestal for a cross without the cross itself. What it really reminds me of, actually, is a gold version of a stereotypical cartoon bomb, the little nub being where the fuse would be attached.

The other thing it reminds me of is the Liahona, described as "a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness." (1 Nephi 16:10). Despite the clear statement that there were two spindles within the ball, artists' depictions of the Liahona invariably show a single protrusion extending out from the top of the ball.

Here is a detail Arnold Friberg's classic Liahona painting, painted in the 1950s and included in many editions of the Book of Mormon since then.

And here is a modern version of the same subject, which has appeared before on this blog. Although the style is very different from Friberg's, the basic design of the Liahona -- a gold-colored ball with a little protrusion at the top -- remains invariable.

It has become common among Mormon intellectuals to contrast the Liahona with another Book of Mormon image, the Iron Rod, a metaphor first used by Richard D. Poll in his 1967 Dialogue article "What the Church Means to People Like Me" (pdf). "Iron Rod" Mormons are more dogmatic and emphasize the authority of the Scriptures and Church leaders, while "Liahona" Mormons are more questing/questioning and emphasize personal inspiration and the guidance of the Holy Ghost. In practice, Liahona and Iron Rod connote "liberal" and "conserative," respectively.

The term Iron Rod comes from Lehi's dream in 1 Nephi 8, where the "rod of iron" is a sort of handrail to which people hold in order not to stray from the path as they pass through the mists of darkness. In Revelation, though, the "rod of iron" seems to be Christ's scepter: "to rule all nations with a rod of iron" (12:15). This imagery, in turn, comes from Psalm 2, where the rod of iron is a weapon with which to smash the heathen to bits, but in Revelation it is consistently used "to rule" (2:27, 12:5, 19:15).

If the iron rod is a scepter, then the Emperor (in most non-Marseille decks) can be seen as holding the Liahona in his left hand and the Iron Rod in his right. This fits with the symbolism just discussed, where the Liahona and Iron Rod symbolize the Mormon "left" and "right." It should also be understood in connection with my earlier discussion of the Emperor's Urim and Thummim, in which the Emperor's right side is associated with the square and his left with the compass. In Mormon use, the square symbolized exactness and honor in keeping covenenats -- clearly an "Iron Rod" concept -- while the compass reminds us of the "Liahona" principle that all truth (not only "official Church doctrine") may be circumscribed into one great whole.

Another thing the gold orb on the Rider-Waite card resembles is a Christmas-tree ornament -- and Waite's Emperor, with his red robes and long, white beard, bears more than a passing resemblance to Father Christmas.

Finally, no discussion of a monarch holding a golden ball would be complete without a nod to the Frog King from the Brothers Grimm. (Irrelevant coincidence: Will Smith's first Golden Globe nomination was for "The Froschprinz of Bel-Air.")

This is clearly an image of Kek, the ancient Egyptian god of chaos whose cult enjoyed such a surprising revival a few years back. (See "The Truth About Pepe The Frog And The Cult of Kek." Apparently Kek has not been entirely forgotten; just after the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, Anonymous Conservative posted a reminded that "A giant frog statue stands in Rittenhouse Square.") Like many Egyptian deities, Kek is often depicted with a was-scepter and ankh; on the Waite card, the scepter and ankh are combined.

The golden ball also suggests the golden apple of Eris -- Kek's predecessor as deity of a chaos-based parody religion.

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