The Knight of Cups

The image of the Knight of Cups came to me several months ago albeit he looked pretty different. Originally, the colors for the piece would have been predominately gold and blue with the knight himself being a cyborg composed of golden machinery, tubes of water, and tanks of sea life. The main shift in colors was one of the few times when I've allowed thought to trump feeling and it surprisingly worked in my favor.

I doubt I'd be nearly as happy with the outcome of the Knight of Cups had I gone with my first idea. Of course, the first idea was almost a reflex to a concept that was yet to be fully formed. The Knight of Cups is about movement forward in romance, art, and higher goals of the heart in general. In order to properly express these themes, I needed colors that set the mood. Since the Cups are representative of the element of water, I designed the Knight of Cups standing before the sea (or more likely rising from it).

Around the time that it came to color the illustration, I had been listening to a lot of new romantic groups like Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo, and Fashion. The song I was most listening to by Fashion, "You Only Left Your Picture", was used in a season 1 episode of Miami Vice and I somehow found myself looking at promo shots from the show. One shot featured a moody and gorgeous twilight sky reflected in a Miami bay and I thought the look of it was perfect for the mood I wanted to achieve.

The watercolor offered a bit of a challenge in mimicking what I saw in the Miami Vice promo photo, but I was still ecstatic over the results. At its heart, the image in the Knight of Cups of the twilit sea beneath the melodramatic sky perfectly represented the emotion I wanted in this card. I don't need to spell out that making an octopus-headed entity seem romantic has its hurdles. 


While almost all of my illustrations have built-in allusions, references, and symbols, my tarot illustrations obviously demand a lot more symbolism. Luckily, ideas for symbolism typically come to me a lot more quickly when doing tarot illustrations probably because of the tarot's built-in universal symbols.

Often the Cups refer to the Holy Grail which itself is often considered a symbol of the vagina. The vagina seemed like an apt symbol to incorporate as much as possible into the Knight of Cups for obvious reasons: as a heterosexual male, successful romantic conquests for me are ultimately determined through my obtainment of "the Holy Grail."

But remember that the Knight of Cups isn't just about love and all that comes with it but also movement forward in art, often expressed as the birth of an idea. And birth comes through a vagina. So, it's not just my libido talking here.

The Knight of Cups before all of the romance...

The vaginal imagery has been worked into several points of the Knight of Cups portrait. The knight's skirt of armor is fashioned to look like a metallic tapestry of roses and vaginas giving way to eyes. Again, the knight's left shoulder is protected by armor fashioned into the shape of a vagina giving away to a sparkling eye.

The Holy Grail itself, entangled in the knight's hand with metal rose stems, features jewelled eyes above vaginas and the stem of the Holy Grail itself emerges from a metal vagina. The pairing of vaginas and eyes is an intentional theme of the Knight of Cups, stemming from the saying "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and "eyes are the window to the soul."

Taking the eyes as a symbol of romance, I additionally worked them into the binding of the armor on the knight's right arm (bordered by puckered lips), protecting the knight's right shoulder, and staring from the center of a rose in the handle of the knight's trident sword. Even in the border, the chalices depict an eye crying a heart, a motif that is repeated in the detail of his belt.

There's an entire spider web effect of symbols happening here. Eyelids look like vaginas which look like puckered lips which look like eyelids. Romance exudes from eyes, it exudes from puckered lips, and it exudes from vaginas. Also, the Holy Grail is said to have collected the blood of Jesus Christ.

In the Knight of Cups illustration, a subtle red glow in the centre of the cups may allude to blood just as the hearts (full of blood) drip from crying eyes. Likewise, vaginas (Holy Grail) menstruate. Perhaps I'm lost in the incestuousness of my own symbolism but the connections seemed too strong to ignore. 

This may be considered a rather primal perspective of love and romance but there are plenty of allusions to less biologically-based symbols of passion. The pink candles standing proudly from their cup bases are a reference to the color of candles traditionally used in love spells.

Roses, the flower most popularly use to express feelings of love, are engraved in the knight's chest plate armor, the knight's armored skirt, the center of his trident sword's handle, and even in the candle smoke. Of course, there is something obviously vaginal about a rose, but that association has been dulled with time.

The rune of "wunjo", often used to express joy or love, is used liberally throughout the portrait. Wunjo appears on the sides and center (solar plexus) of the knight's armored torso, on the knight's upper left arm plate, on the larger candle holder cups, on the rim of the Holy Grail, on the steed, and in the center of the eyes of the cups in the borders. The knight is even colored using primarily the colors associated with St. Valentine's Day: red, pink, lavender, and white.

But the most obvious and popular symbol of romance in this illustration is the cartoonish heart. These hearts punctuate the knight's flowing romantic scarf, the rim of the Holy Grail, the left lower arm plate, stand proudly from the armband on his left arm, accentuate the hilt of his sword, cry forth from the eyes of the border cups, and decorate the center of the serpentine starfish in the sky.

A heart plate stands out on his chest with a tube of the knight's blood protruding from it. Hearts are caught in the sticky arms of the octopus. A heart even stands as the head of love's swift arrow, piercing the knight's right forearm. 

High romance!


On a more personal level, I felt that the knight's championing of love could be lost if there was too much emphasis put on the fighter over the lover. The knight-in-shining-armor is therefore accentuated with dandyish accentuations of his romantic nature; his white gloves with passionate red trim and his flowing scarf.

His glass eye cries an emotionally charged tear of condensation. Even the qualities of war are filtered through innocent feelings of love, as seen in Cupid's piercing arrow. 

As mentioned before, the Cups are representative of the water element and therefore also emotion, intuition, sensitivity, and relationships. I also see water as the fluid world of dreams. A lot of basic water symbols were incorporated into this illustration, mostly just to reinforce the knight's connection to the water element.

Perhaps most prominent of these symbols is that the knight's steed is a seahorse with the rune of wunjo emblazoned on it. The seahorse theme carries over into the knight's stomach, an aquarium where two seahorses are kissing in romantic red lighting. The knight's head is comprised of a metallic cup and a glass dome housing an octopus.

The octopus was chosen as the brain of the Knight of Cups mostly for reasons beyond me but there's the obvious suckered grip of the octopus (love's sticky grip). You could even reference Veruca Salt's Eight Arms to Hold You album which may not make it into my Top 10 Make-Out Albums but it is noteworthy as the only other piece of art I know to romanticize an octopus.

Associating water with dreams, I wanted to incorporate a starry sky prior to deciding on a twilight scene. During that point, I came up with the idea of using starfish instead of actual celestial stars. Starfish were worked into the borders but I also used serpentine starfish as representatives of the stars in the dreamy sky. Serpentine starfish may have a less obvious star shape than the majority of their cousins but it allowed me to show them linking arms in a gesture of longing.

A trident is the weapon of choice of the god of the sea in Greek mythology (Poseidon) and Roman mythology (Neptune) so I thought it fitting that the Knight of Cups's sword be fashioned in a similar style. In addition, his weapon features fish tails as handles. 

Finally, I wanted to express the movement associated with knight cards through a concept that came to me with the initial images that came to my mind. Tubes of water protrude and surround the knight, facilitating the movement of water and, in the case of the heart plate section, blood. These water tubes stand as the initial strands of a spider web of symbolism both universal and personal that creates a picture of a charged moment of love, passion, and dreams.