Durer’s Tarot | Review

5 February 2017

Durer TarotWhen we say Renaissance we think the ‘Italians’: Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. However, one of the great masters (painting and engraving) of that time was hanging out in what we now call Germany and working for Emperor Maximilian I. His name: Albrecht Dürer. Boutique webshop TarotBG recently (re)released a Bulgarian Tarot deck called Durer’s Tarot, based on his works. And if you were looking for something ‘never seen before’ you definitely want to keep reading.

The Durer’s tarot is a limited edition – 999 copies – deck. Mine was numbered 105/999 (great for collectors!). It is the first edition *for* Bulgarian tarot boutique TarotBG, but basically the second edition of the original deck printed in Bulgaria in 2000. Durer’s Tarot was painted by Bulgarian artist Dora Gadhzova in the style of Dürer’s paintings and engravings. Originally the deck was published by Nike 84. The deck sold very well in Eastern-Europe, particularly due to the original point of view of the artist. Georgi Andonov, owner of TarotBG, took a chance because Durer’s Tarot “is one of a kind, a special deck” and acquired the one time rights for this 2nd edition.

Paper quality
When Georgi offered me the chance to review this Bulgarian specialty I jumped on it. I love Renaissance work (almost as much as I like Pre-Raphaelite art), so I was very curious how a deck, based on Dürer’s work would look like. The deck is an exact copy of the Bulgarian one and unfortunately the less than stellar paper quality and form was reproduced too (Andonov had no say in that).

The cards of Durer’s Tarot are quite small and on top of that they have a black border (shame) to hold not 4 but 6 languages for card titles. (English, German, French, Spanish, Bulgarian and Italian). The stock isn’t of the thickest variety either, au contraire, but luckily they shuffle well. With those black borders you do get scuff marks real fast. The box looks a bit similar to a carton wallet, making it easy to get the deck in & out. It seems sturdy enough for storage. The black box is printed with Durer’s painting of St Jerome, playing Hermit in the deck.

Durer Tarot Majors

Durer’s Tarot Majors. The more known works of Albrecht Durer are used for these, just more brightly colored than the Renaissance artists would normally use himself.

Then to what it is all about: the actual tarot-part.
Let’s start with the card backs of Durer’s Tarot. I guess this is where the unusual starts: it has a portrait (very Royal-playing card style) of Albrecht Durer! I can’t remember ever having seen a face on the back of cards – in this case a self-portrait of the artist this tarot deck is inspired by. Due to the way the back is positioned Durer’s Tarot is great for reversals. The deck has a matte finish.

There is no companion book for this edition of Durer’s Tarot. The Bulgarian edition did have one, but that was never translated and I can’t find info online. Designer Dora Gadhova’s inspiration will therefore stay a mystery and trust me: in this case that is a HUGE miss. I said before Gadhzova had a ‘certain’ approach and vision and that the deck is special. Well, that is absolutely true. So, whether you like the designer’s handle on Durer’s art or whether you like the adaptations made within the tarot context, is really the question.

Another set of Majors from the Durer's Tarot. Hereby a few that are logical when looking longer, but aren't exactly what you are used to. The Moon looks similar to a WCS Temperance angel.

Another set of Majors from the Durer’s Tarot. Hereby a few that are logical when looking longer, but aren’t exactly what you are used to. The Moon looks similar to a WCS Temperance angel.

No known pattern & system
Let me start with the latter: system. When I first shuffled the cards I initially wanted to say: Waite-Smith. But I quickly changed my mind. The minors are either adorned with inserted suit symbols against a landscape or are nativity scenes with here and there symbols. It is partly a pip-deck for sure. The Major Arcana has a certain variety as well and with all the biblical references and based on Renaissance art is is as close to the 1500’s as it is to Waite’s 1909 deck. And then I looked at the minors again, saw it was not only somewhere in between pip and scenic, but deviates pretty much from every minor arcana art/scenic I’ve seen so far. In other words: forget WCS, TdM or Ancient Italian. Let’s just throw it all out of the window. This is indeed simply Dürer’s Tarot.

Which brings me to the adaptations and the fact you might have issues with reading them. I’ll be honest: it is not really my cup of tea. If anything I’d like to call this tarot a bit of a cult deck.

Like I said, the Majors are very strong. Durer’s own paintings seem a little sharper at times, but Dora did chose one specific style. Not every MA shows what you expect, but despite existing works being fitted into the tarot mold I understand the choices. The only one I have serious issues with is The Moon…and maybe The Sun.

Durer's Tarot Minors

These are a few of the minor arcana in Durer’s Tarot. It took me quite some time to connect. The compilation of fragments is weird at times and that angel appears pretty much everywhere.

Angels & photoshop
It’s the minors where the artists loses me. This is the weaker part of the deck and where the weirdness comes in. Suit symbols are integrated into fragments of existing paintings and landscapes. The insertion of the suits feels a little contrived…forced. It is a bit photoshop-y, if you catch my drift. The Cups also seem too large. But it gets stranger…

In pretty much ever card (but still not in all, and I can’t figure out why) there’s an angel floating about. Sometimes she points somewhere, in others she holds a cup or is simply ‘just there’. In most cases she has a little cloud underneath. I thoroughly checked Durer’s art and saw almost exactly that Angel in several of his paintings, the most important one being the Four Horseman of the Apocalyps. I guess Dora honored the Renaissance painter by using this important angel, but I have to be honest: it feels like an ‘unnecessary’ addition with a very gimmicky feel to it.

Durer's Tarot courts. For every figure the same image is used. Just another suit symbol and color throughout the courts.

Durer’s Tarot courts. For every figure the same image is used. Just another suit symbol and color throughout the courts. The Knight is based on a well-known painting.

And then there are cards with monsters. Again, research showed me Durer painted those as a way to show what Hell has to offer. But seeing one of those monsters holding a sword in the 2 or 3 of Swords, or being surrounded by Pentacles is ehm… surprising. I’ll leave the meaning of this up to you (I came to one, including why she did several other things). If that isn’t enough she placed several of Durer’s horse, deer or dog drawings square in a field with a few suit symbols to keep them company, all the while this angel flying around with huge cups in her hands. Oh boy, what I would not give to have that original companion book or to have a look in miss Gadhzova’s head.

TdM techniques
So, how does this read? At first: confusing (but perhaps that won’t be the case for you)! I realized soon readings with the Durer’s Tarot are best served by using a combination of TdM techniques (where is the angel looking at, how many dogs, is the animal large or small etc) and letting yourself ‘drown’ in the imagery. What do you see and how does it make you feel? At first with the 5P I thought: a monster being tied to a tree with 5 coins floating over his head…huh? But what if this equals: darkness+ feeling stuck+ money…there ya go!

Another set of Durer's Tarot minors. The 3 of Swords and the 6 of Pentacles have the monsters. In most cases the Wand card hold completely existing paintings. It is the least 'added to' suit.

Another set of Durer’s Tarot minors. The 3 of Swords and the 6 of Pentacles have the monsters. In most cases the Wand card hold completely existing paintings. It is the least ‘added to’ suit.

This deck is worthy of the name special. I recommend -due to the lack of a companion – to do a little research on his paintings, so you’ll recognize them as the Major Arcana – including why designer Dora chose them. Be open-minded about the minors. The courts are relatively easy to pick out, but the 1-10 will give you some pause in a large part of the deck. I can hardly imagine it won’t.

The backs of the Durer's Tarot are Rx.

The backs of the Durer’s Tarot are Rx.

Conclusion: taste is subjective
Durer’s Tarot is an acquired taste, but the artist has painted and adapted the works of a world famous painter for tarot in a very consistent fashion. The longer you look at it, the more you realize there is method to the madness. The Wand suit, imho, has been portrayed the best, followed by the Swords. They tell the story scenically, whereas Pentacles and Cups are more of the pip-variety with the help of an angel. Despite its ‘weirdness’ I did manage to get some decent answers from the deck.

I can imagine collector’s wanting to have an edition. While not one card is *A* Durer, the artist has preserved Durers’ work in a remarkable way. When it comes to this tarot taste or a fondness of quirkiness is everything. It might not be mine, but I have to give credit to the fact there is a logical pattern and consistency and those Majors work really well! If this *is* your taste and you’re ready to embrace the Durer’s Tarot own cult-y special divination magic you might have one of those unexpected weapons in your arsenal.

NB. The Durer’s Tarot is ONLY available at TarotBG, in case you wanted to buy ;-).
NB2. The website of the deck does have enlargements of all the cards.

Author or artist Publisher Publication
Dora Gadzhova Nike 84 for TarotBG December 2016

Wrap Up

Durer's Tarot