The Hanged Man
By Don Bapst
When PhD candidate Glen Harrison proposes researching the origins of the earliest known tarot cards, the Visconti-Sforza deck, for his thesis, his art history professors are dubious. As he struggles to find a convincing argument, one of the cards yields a surprising clue. It ... Read more
When PhD candidate Glen Harrison proposes researching the origins of the earliest known tarot cards, the Visconti-Sforza deck, for his thesis, his art history professors are dubious. As he struggles to find a convincing argument, one of the cards yields a surprising clue. It is the first in a series of seemingly chance encounters and random finds that takes him down a new and terrifying path, which leads from the safety of the museums and libraries of pre-9/11 New York to the most hidden reaches of West Africa, where a mystery as dark and ancient as the cards themselves unfurls. The beautifully painted Visconti-Sforza cards, commissioned by Italian nobility, were originally secular, private art reserved for the elite. Centuries later, however, tarot cards have come to be associated with telling fortunes. Esoteric nonsense? Or are the cards capable of predicting and changing their reader's life? Through the intimate journal entries of Glen, The Hanged Man explores the fine line that separates life from art, truth from fantasy, sanity from madness.
from Chapter One
These cards had been held in the hands of the Italians who had ordered them created. Used for what purpose? To play games, as jaded historians would have everyone believe? I couldn't believe that such beauty -- each card a hand-painted treasure of Renaissance art! -- could only exist to kill time in some overstuffed castle. I had to prove that these cards weren't simply a European spin on the ancient Chinese game of "money cards," but a sacred tool of the ancient Egyptians brought to Europe by nomadic Arabs and Romani gypsies -- a connection many occultists swore by, even if secular Tarot researchers scoffed at the notion.
For me, though, the cards were too charged with symbolism and meaning to be simply a game. Their intricate facades overwhelmed me with the fine detailing of those master craftsmen who'd created them. Each tiny brush mark, each application of pigment, a stroke of genius. For a moment, I forgot about the divinatory significance of each card and was struck merely by the beauty of the artistic technique...
And then the gloved hand unveiled the fourth card in its transparent sheath.
I had studied the reproduction of this card before viewing the original, but nothing had prepared me for the earthiness of its tone, and that smudge along the young page's profile in such a rich hue. I was reminded of Egyptian hieroglyphs and African pottery. There in the Renaissance depiction of the archetype I carry within me -- this message-bearing page who has crossed centuries on his quest to enlighten others -- I found the earth of Africa.
I'm not talking about a symbolic earth, but rather an actual physical quality to the pigment used to paint the card: a gritty streak of savannah sludge worn into the delicate figure as if by the cruel thumb of fate. No, it wasn't a streak, but rather more like an exposed foundation revealed through the chipped plaster of the white figure's fragile cheek.
These cards were not born in Europe.
Had I gasped out loud at my discovery, I wondered, as the librarian whisked away the final image from me? My time with the cards had come to an end.
"You are lucky," she said, as she placed the page back into the box she had used to transfer it from the dark recesses of the library where it was presumably stored. "Normally this particular card is kept in Bergamo."
I was stunned. "Really? Then why is it here?"
"A wealthy collector of Tarot art was looking to verify the authenticity of a privately acquired piece..." She stopped herself, as if realizing she'd revealed too much.
Sometimes, there's a fine line between strongly held belief and irrational obsession. The Hanged Man, by Don Bapst, is a novel about mad obsession and mysterious forces. It takes as its starting point the origins and perceived power of tarot cards. The main character, Glen Harrison, is a student of art history with an interest in the tarot. In particular, he's fascinated by the cards of the famed Visconti-Sforza deck, a spectacular set of art objects, lavishly decorated trifles for members of the Italian nobility. Dating from the mid-15th century, most of the remaining cards are now held in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. The book is illustrated with cards from the Visconti-Sforza deck introducing each chapter, complete with readings based on the cards. Throughout the novel, Harrison increasingly finds himself in strange and stranger situations. In this intriguing and tense novel, though, much of that strangeness is Harrison's own creation.