Review: Cartas Philippinensis

"It has a place on every collector’s shelf and in the libraries of those interested in Philippine history, art, and spirituality."


The product of a collaborative art project and an intense interest in history, ‘Cartas Philippinensis’ (2016) by lawyer and professor Saul Hofileña Jr. is a reimagination and revisiting of our colonial past, the effects of which still reverberate through our present. 

This self-published work comes in two parts – a deck of 22 Tarot cards in the Major Arcana and a book that explains the significance of the figures on each card, with a narrative of the inspiration or historical background for the images on the cards. 

 The cards were illustrated by Guy Custodio, who studied art in Los Angeles and several places in Spain. The ideas for the images were the author’s, and the artist added form and color. Custodio says in his foreword that he painted each card “subject to [the author’s] instructions… If a figure did not comply with historical details, he asked that it be revised. Details were cross-checked for their historical accuracy.”

Hofileña calls the Cartas “the only playable Tarot cards with Philippine themes.” By ‘play’ he doesn’t mean games like pusoy dos or poker, but in the sense of using them to “speak to you of your past and help you understand the present,” as Custodio puts it. 

The author took for his theme the Patronato Real, or Royal Patronage. This was an agreement between the Holy See and the Spanish monarchy for the latter to support Catholic missionaries in Spanish possessions. Thus the cards speak directly to a past “when the Church, in conjunction with the Spanish civil authorities, ruled the lives of the indios.”

Cartas is presented in a box shaped like a book. The art on the box cover recalls paintings of the 19thcentury. Inside the box is the deck of cards in a receptacle on the left inside cover, and the hardcover book in the recess on the right. The entire inside of the box is covered with burgundy fabric. Everything about it – box, book, cards - is of the best quality.

My only beef is that the images reproduced on the cards and in the book are fuzzy and lack detail. They are neither sharp nor crisp, but perhaps this is as the artist intended in an effort to emulate the style of colonial era art.

The cards’ archetypal figures are inspired by personalities or incidents from colonial Philippines. El Mago (The Magician) is a friar surrounded by a broken rosary and a blank book symbolizing that he has “debased the Faith.” La Sacerdotisa (The High Priestess) commemorates the Filipina beatas who “formed their own religious clusters;” La Emperatriz (The Empress), is the “undisputed queen of the Philippines,” the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

In “How the Game is Played,” Hofileña shares a horizontal three-card spread. The first card (on the left) shows “what the seeker sees;” the second (middle) explains “why he does not see the truth;” and the third (right) “will present the truth.”

Hofileña says to shuffle the cards first, but they are larger than the usual Tarot cards and awkward to hold. It is easiest to shuffle them along their width rather than their length. After shuffling and cutting, these are the cards I drew:

In the first position was El Mundo, The World, representing, Hofileña says, “illumination, change, worldly success, perpetual power.” The middle card was El Juicio, Judgment (in Filipino, ‘wisyo’): “awakening, renewal, mending, and healing.” The last card was El Emperador, The Emperor: “force and responsibility, stability, irrevocable and unassailable judgment and strength.” 

Relating this spread to my current personal situation, I interpreted this to mean that my prospects will improve so long as I play by the rules. Other adepts may come up with a different meaning, but the interpretation of Tarot cards is largely intuitive and what’s important is what resonates with the seeker. I’ve found Tarot divination to be not so much a prediction of what is to come but a presentation of the array of options that may not have been readily apparent at first thought.

Compared to Western Tarot cards I’ve used, the Cartas connect me to Filipinas and my sense of identity; they are grounding and centering. They immediately felt familiar and ‘at home’ in my hands. However, the lack of the Minor Arcana does not allow me to use larger spreads to extract more complicated meanings. But for those who intend only to delight in the art and the historical narratives in the book, these cards are enough and perfect. 

‘Cartas Philippinensis’ is one of the most aesthetically pleasing and intellectually interesting works I have had the privilege of enjoying. It has a place on every collector’s shelf and in the libraries of those interested in Philippine history, art, and spirituality.

To inquire about ‘Cartas’, call or text Ms. Mimi at 0917-623-4717. 

Find me at FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO

Topics: Jenny Ortuoste , Cartas Philippinensis
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