The Byzantine Tarot by Cilla Conway and John Matthews
Reviewed by Pengwen
The Byzantine Tarot by John Matthews and Cilla Conway Schiffer Publishing, 2015 RRP £25.99 ISBN-13: 978-1859063910
First things first. I was dazzled by The Byzantine Tarot when I saw it being used online, but when I held it in my hands, it took my breath away. Cilla Conway’s art is simply gorgeous, in colour and in style, and the finish on the cards is perfect for giving iconic designs a golden sheen. But there is so much more to this deck than its beauty (although admittedly, this is hard to get past!).
The Byzantine Tarot follows the Rider Waite Smith system (although it is not a clone). There are a few changes to the Major Arcana, but they are all intuitive changes – you won’t need the book to keep you right: The Holy Fool (The Fool), the Magus (Magician), Sophia (High Priestess), Patriarch (Hierophant), Charioteer (Chariot), Diabolos (Devil), and Kosmos (The World). Justice is placed at VIII and Fortitude at XI. The Court cards are Pages, Knights, Countesses, and Counts, and the suits are Swords, Staffs, Cups, and Coins.
If you are familiar with the RWS system, you can thoroughly enjoy using the deck without knowing anything about the Byzantine Empire (did I mention the cards are beautiful?). But the book is also so wonderful. John Matthews provides a brief introduction to the founding of the city Byzantium and the empire that grew up around it, and how this vibrant and sophisticated culture can be reflected so well in the art of Tarot. Did you ever wonder about the Tarot suddenly springing up in 15th-century Italy? It now seems entirely possible that it came to Italy from the Byzantine Empire. Matthews compares the style of early Italian decks to the Mamluk Tarot, a copy of which was discovered only recently (1927) in a museum in Istanbul. Cilla Conway’s introduction explains her own explorations of Byzantine art; I particularly enjoyed her explanation of her designs for the Death and Diabolos cards, which reflect the Byzantine understanding of the concepts in contrast to our own.
The book also offers a brief introduction to how to use Tarot for anyone who is new to it, and gives more experienced readers some clues as to how best to read the deck. The Major and Minor Arcana follow: Swords first, then Staffs, Cups, and Coins. Every page offers an opportunity to delve deeply into an aspect of the culture and art of Byzantium: each card is pictured (the book is printed in purple ink) and briefly described, then the ‘Traditions’ of the image are explained, followed by its meaning ‘In a Reading’. Keywords for upright and reversed interpretations are presented in a box at the end of each section. At the end of the book, Matthews and Conway include new spreads created for this deck, including ‘The Holy Fool Spread’, ‘The Byzantium Spread’, and ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ spread; each one comes with a picture of a sample reading and explanation.
The card stock is on the thicker side. I like this because I enjoy cards that feel more substantial. I prefer to riffle shuffle, and that was fine for me with this deck, but I have seen other reviews citing this as a problem (I have slightly larger hands than most women, I think). The finish is light – while it does give that lovely glow to the images, it means that the cards are not as slippery as, e.g. the RWS. They don’t stick together, either, but they do have that lovely, tactile raspiness as you shuffle and recombine. The box has a top that comes off (i.e. not a magnetic closure).Because the card stock is thicker which makes it taller, it doesn’t fit fully into its spot in the bottom of the box. A couple of the cards on top are loose, which is not a problem. It just gives me a reason to get a beautiful tarot bag to take care of this beautiful deck.