Meaning: The time for action has come. What was uncertain before is now hammered into your being through experience. You have nothing left to fear. It is a good time to find others like yourself.
Reverse: Though you have prepared, waiting for results can drive you crazy. Be strong and don’t let impatience get the upper hand. You will correct your own ways, in your own time.
In terms of the sequence of the trumps, it’s our part returning to the cosmic everything. Death and the other trials have all passed by, and after unveiling the cosmic layers of our world, we eventually arrive at the natural return of our energy back into the cycle of life, and its continuation in the universe. It’s a sentence we all face, and traditionally this card does not indicate any sort of punishment.
This card is routinely renamed anything but Judgement in modern decks. As second to last card, it depicts the apocalyptic theme of resurrection. The resurrection shown is in preparation for judgement from a Christian perspective, so that’s what one expects will happen next. But the images of this kind give some sense that the Judgement has already taken place, they’re relieved and jubilant. The innovation of Late Antiquity religion in Rome was to offer something different. For much of history, religion had considered only its nobles and kings to be reincarnated, for the rest it was the underworld, or the stars, or wherever people go for good. The new religions offered a new body, specifically, to every good person who did not get to ascend for one reason or another, in one big resurrection. For this reason the image is distinct, and it’s hard to get around the direct reference to this.
The Harrowing of Hell has pagan precedent, with Pythagoras and others making the trip down to see friends and relatives. In some early formulations of the decks, this card was present instead of the Tower, the popular image of the Hellmouth. So the Judgement card does not depict this story. It depicts a Resurrection of the Flesh, a point of argument in the Church. Why are some to rise from the grave and live in Earthly Paradise, while others after a certain point leave the world entirely? It was the same question asked in the ancient days, why do only Kings and heroes return while the rest of us head straight for the underworld? The Resurrection of the Flesh promised new bodies, and it was the opinion of some that it should be left to the imagination. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), said of the resurrection: “The soul does not take an airy or heavenly body, or a body of another organic constitution, but a human body composed of flesh and bones and the same members enjoyed at present.” Which could even read as reincarnation. This is the only theme that the Tarot uses to depict an afterlife, despite having four old time gods of Death in the pack, and it is a return to life that was chosen.
In Alchemy resurrection is something else – a metaphor using chemical purification for self realization, with the goal of a successful transmutation, removing the valuable parts, such as extracting metal from an ore. You have reunited the better parts, they are buried in the coal, and pour out merged, the metal has returned to life. From this view, the Judgement is cheerful, sometimes a dead man’s party, the process is complete and it’s worth noting at this the resurrection involves the music of trumpets. It was at the very least a chance to paint naked people. I recommend seeing this card for what it most likely is, not about death or even afterlife, but about rebirth, starting over, and being uplifted.
Possibly what is most interesting about the Judgement card is that it is second to last, and its resolution, the final card in the Tarot, is the world. For the Tarot in any case, the final word on whatever meaning it carries is that Resurrection, the new life, is followed directly by admiration of the total World.
The third possibility for this card, the only apparent commentary on afterlife in the whole of the deck, is the most plausible, and that links to the popular paintings accompanying Petrarch’s il Trionfi, The Triumphs, a series of poems whose order matches in image, time and order the Trumps in the Tarot deck. In the case of Petrarch, we discover that what is called The Judgement in the Tarot is none other than the Triumph of Fame in his poem. And in that case, as a move of humanist intent, the author is calling upon the spirits of the wise from all people and times in the past. Great leaders, writers pagan and modern, east and west.
So in the Triumph of Fame, we have voices from beyond the grave, guiding and assisting the authors of the Tarot in their goal of visualizing a world with a richer past and a brighter, more tolerant future. We have a roll call of good spirits from whom those underground may drawn strength. These voices have defeated death, only time swallows them for good. We have our reward for doing the good work, and a fame well earned is timeless in the humanist view.
If this is true, then this card is also the place where the Tarot order is switched from the of The Triumphs. To match the order, Judgement, then would come before The Sun. Using this as a key potentially unlocks the mystery of the connection between the Tarot and alphabet, I will explain further when I discuss this.