Writing The Da Vinci Enigma Tarot

by Caitlín Matthews, author of RedFeather’s new release, The Da Vinci Enigma Tarot as well as Untold Tarot: The Lost Art of Reading Ancient Tarot.

The idea for this tarot began back in Venice in 2001 when, with my husband John, I went to an exhibition of Leonardo’s flying machines and other engineering inventions. In the echoing nave of a decommissioned church were hung models of winged flight and other strange contraptions that Leonardo dreamed up. Rays of light arched down through the gloom, illuminating the pulleys, levers, and winches that swayed from battens hung from the vault. The light shone down upon the enigmatic pages of the artist’s strange mirror writing, the cipher of dreams unfulfilled. It was both magical and surreal. I was only to find out later that Leonardo had himself come to Venice and tried to interest the Doge and his council in a submersible device that would help protect the Venetian lagoon by sabotaging enemy vessels. Like so many of his projects, it came to nothing because the commissioning patron had neither enough imagination nor belief in this strange Florentine and his weird ideas to provide the cash for a prototype. It wasn’t until two years ago that someone created and tested Leonardo’s underwater diving ideas in the lagoon and found that they did indeed work.

From previous tarots on which I’ve worked, I know that I cannot create a tarot piecemeal. It has to be entirely clear to me like an architect’s blueprint before I know whether it will work or not. I began to pour over pictures and immerse myself in Leonardo’s writings, not just what other people had written about him.  Initially, I was a little ambivalent about pursuing this idea when I discovered just what short shrift he gave to “alchemists and necromancers” whom he regarded as charlatans and liars, but then I saw with what respect he held the ancient, classical traditions of mathematics, philosophy, and natural science. I still held back, waiting for some inner confirmation that this tarot would not be disrespectful to his work. Then the whole tarot hit me like a great dam bursting forth.

The speed at which the definitions and card-titles arrived was astonishing, even spooky. I got a sense that the tarot already existed and it was only a matter of seeing it, like staring at a wall and suddenly seeing an image. Leonardo himself wrote about this process: “Observe walls splashed with many stains… in which you can see landscapes… these variegated stones act like the pealing of bells in which you can discern every name and word you can imagine.” Well, it was just like that. 

This was an intense period of creation. I rose every morning to work on at least two cards a day, until not only the whole pack but also its accompanying book had been finished. I’m known as a fast writer in the trade, but this tarot felt it had something more than my own impetus moving through it. 

I chose Leonardo’s notebooks as the main source of the images. He kept these notebooks throughout his life as his daily companion, including his sketches, ideas, inventions, observations, and household accounts. They have images captured as he moved through markets, churches, and countryside of men and women, animals and trees, landscapes, and always his beloved waters. He wrote his annotations in mirror writing which is not ciphered, although it initially seems like that when you first look at it. After his death, these wonderful notebooks were gradually dispersed as their guardians tore out pages to give to eminent or curious people. Collecting these scattered pages from as far afield as the Royal Library Windsor and the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan and other less well-known libraries, the images began to reassemble.

The images of the front of the cards were by Leonardo, but I was determined that the backs would also be his. There was a surviving design of a repeating, interwoven pattern that Leonardo created to be an emblem of his own pipe-dream academy — alas, never fulfilled. This densely interwoven design was a kind of pun upon his name ‘da Vinci’ which means ‘osiers’ — the kinds of reeds used for basket-weaving. If this design could be repeated upon the backs of the cards…? Perhaps the whole pack might be laid out and somehow connect? The designers at Connections worked overtime to come up with a means of making this pattern work. Eventually, we found a way of doing it. By laying all the cards face-down, this repeating design connected all the cards into one pattern. Interspersed between the repeated roundels of Leonardo’s design were the polyhedra he drew for the book of his mathematical mentor, Luca Pacioli in 1509. Imagine, having Leonardo da Vinci as the illustrator of your book!

Tarot may be seen in the words of Alice as “nothing but a pack of playing cards,” but it is so much more. I wanted to help expand the way in which we view the tarot, and I hope tarot-users will enjoy the new method of making a spread by joining the designs on the backs of their chosen cards. When the joined cards are turned over, they reveal the shape of the question or issue in extraordinary ways that are utterly unique. This kind of spread avoids the “one size fits all” that often characterizes tarot. In addition, instead of just the upright and reversed meanings, there is a third meaning — for the disconnected cards whose backs cannot be joined by matching patterns. These unconnected cards often pinpoint the reason why things are not flowing and what we can do about it. 

Playing with a mini-deck of cards that had just the design of the backs printed upon them with the title of each card on its face, I started to read for myself and others to see how the deck played. This is like test-driving a car before the paint-job and all the extra features have been added to it. I learned how the pack behaved, what kinds of answers it conveyed, how I needed to moderate my own reading method. The immediate excitement was seeing, no matter how many times you shuffled the cards, at least 7-8 cards out of ten would create a unique pattern or set of patterns. I read for a great-grandmother, for a student, a young businesswoman, and an actor, among others; they were all interested in what the deck had to say. 

My method of reading has always been to read for the present moment of any issue and see what the querent needs to bring into balance now: the choices we make in the present moment change the next moment. Sometimes this will mean changes to our behavior or outlook, sometimes it will require us to be patient and consolidate, sometimes we are in the process of bringing something important to birth. The tarot-reader attends to all these moments like a mid-wife, with the tarot as a diagnostic tool for those willing to understand the wisdom of the present moment and how our destiny unfolds itself. 

Like Leonardo himself, we are all so busy trying to survive that sometimes our secret dreams of flight, the achievement of our heart’s desire, are often pushed onto the back burner. We need radical reminders to pursue, manifest, and honor these desires while at the same time retaining responsibility for our actions and consideration for others. These cards speak of such urgent matters, encouraging the user to look deeper into the soul’s code of our destiny and how we are honoring its unique pattern.

Working through the logistics of how Leonardo and the framework of the tarot meet, I have been aware of an accidental time resonance between Leonardo’s life and my own, for he was born in 1452 and I was born in 1952. Of course, there can be no further comparison between us, save for this simple accident of age and perhaps a polymath’s impatience to get to the next thing before accomplishing the last — a kind of loss-cutting process that I’m afraid I sometimes share. But the frailties of old age are beginning for me as they did for him and the increasing urgency to create, consolidate, and leave a legacy is one with which I greatly empathize. 

Writers often speak of a sense of being accompanied by the subjects of their books. I was continually aware of Leonardo’s searching concentration, his rigor, and his impatience, his deep disdain of puerile pursuits, and his great love of beauty, harmony, and music as I worked. Few people realize that Leonardo was also a musician, though none of his music for the lira de braccio (the bowed lyre) has survived. My central point of contact with Leonardo was through the music of the spheres — the eternal harmony that permeates the macrocosm, the resonance of which we each experience in the microcosm. This sense of Leonardo’s closeness was further highlighted when I discovered an entry in one of his notebooks, describing his achievement of a self-set geometrical task: “On St Andrew’s night (30th November 1504) I finished squaring the circle, the light was at its end as well as the night and the paper on which I was writing.” Exactly six hundred years lay between that event and the commissioning of the Da Vinci Enigma Tarot.

I shivered.

Leonardo’s searching perceptions, his quick mind, his self-taught study of the world were all unfettered by formal education, yet we think of him as a genius.  His vocational energy continues to be an inspiration to us all. This tarot is a homage to him.

© Caitlín Matthews 2020

Explore The Da Vinci Enigma Tarot through this brief video:

About the Author:

CAITLíN MATTHEWS

CAITLíN MATTHEWS is the author of 80 books, including Diary of a Soul Doctor, and The Lost Book of the GrailShe has created several tarots and oracles, including Complete Arthurian Tarot, The Da Vinci Enigma TarotAncestral Oracle of the Celts, and Enchanted Lenormand. Her two handbooks on divination Untold Tarot: The Lost Art of Reading Ancient Tarots, and the Complete Lenormand Oracle Handbook, are used worldwide. Caitlín is a member of the World Divination Association and speaks at Tarot Conferences all over the world. As founder of The Foundation for Inspirational and Oracular Studies, dedicated to the unwritten sacred arts, she teaches internationally on a wide variety of esoteric and spiritual subjects. See www.hallowquest.org.uk for events, courses, and forthcoming books.