As you know, the origin of the Tarot cards which we associate with divination and the occult is mysterious and nebulous. Some writers, artists, and philosophers trace its origin to 15th century Europe, however, others insist that the Tarot definitely has Egyptian origins; they made miniature clay tablets perhaps. In the 18th century, the French and the Italians (they called it tarocchini) were fascinated with “cartomancy,” but so were the Germans and the English. “Major Arcana” and “Minor Arcana” are terms used to describe the suite of cards. Anyway, I am definitely the wrong person to ask about anything that has to do with cards; it’s a childhood thing, you see. My Guerrero grandparents who took care of my brother and I abhorred gambling and the occult. Cards were strictly forbidden in their home and woe to the disobedient yayas caught playing cards in the presence of their innocent wards!
So, when I first saw “Cartas Philippinensis,” the only playable Tarot cards with Philippine themes, I could almost hear my grandfather’s stern warning, forbidding me to even touch the beautiful box where the cards are kept. What could my pious grandma have said about the eponymous tableau that displays all the cards, interspersed with foreboding messages in Spanish?
Some of eminent Filipino painters, one of them Brenda Fajardo, have “Filipinized” Tarot cards on canvas, but no one had yet made playable Tarot cards until the HOCUS team (Atty. Saul Hofileña Jr. and Guy Custodio) collaborated on this masterpiece.
When I showed a set to my friend Dr. Cristina Barron (head of history department, Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico), she said the cards revealed to her our Spanish identity, “…which is deeply rooted, in Christian tradition. These are glimpses of the syncretism of the Catholic faith which, when fused with the forces of nature, enrich and balance what is sacred to the Filipino people. “As Cristina gazed at them quite pensively, she remembered that Pope Francis said something like that when he visited the Philippines.
Cristina added: “The Manila-Acapulco Galleon was the principal agent in the fulfillment of ‘la gran comisión’, the propagation of the religion, Christianization as the ultimate task. Beyond its mercantile objectives, the galleon was above all a vehicle for the transfer of culture.” The cards could very well be Mexican, she told me, as “…the successful Christianization of the Philippines was due to the use of methods and forms of conversion based on a previous experience in Mexico, adapted to Philippine conditions.”
The Tarot set is currently on exhibit at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Gallery XXI on the 3rd floor. It is accompanied by a tableau which is the main attraction of the HOCUS exhibition that will end in October, during Museum Month. On Saturday, 15 July, there will be a HOCUS lecture, the second of the series, at the Osmeña Hall located behind the “Spoliarium” on the 2nd floor. We will start at 2 p.m. precisely, so please don’t be late.
I have my favorite “Cartas”: I like “La Torre” because it hints about Gomburza and uses the church belfry on Panglao Island, built in 1851, to punish the wicked friars who had them executed. In “La Luna,” two stray dogs howl at a full moon; clamoring for reforms during colonial times was like howling at the moon; in the background are the churches of Loboc and Baclayon, heritage treasures recently destroyed by an earthquake. “La Templanza” is a Filpino lass with angel wings. The French traveller Paul de la Gironiére, who spent 20 years in Jala-Jala, was enthralled by “the singularly intelligent and expressive physiognomy of the Tagalog women.” “El Papa” is a biased choice because the high priest is no other than Bishop Cesar Maria Guerrero, my grandfather’s brother.
I might still get over my primeval fear of playing cards simply because the Cartas Philippinensis is not just about gaming or the occult; it is a commingling of our colonial history, art, and religious beliefs.