I think that most people agree that these cards are “after Death” because they represent something eternal. Since they include the Stars, the Moon, the Sun and the World, the higher trumps can reasonaly be taken to represent a kind of cosmology, but this can be viewed in a few different ways:
* a cosmograph, i.e. a representation of the order of the universe as is;
* a narrative related to the creation of the universe;
* a narrative related to the end of the universe;
* a journey through the universe.
Here are my considerations about these different points of view.
Both the Italian XVI Century essays about the meaning of the trumps interpret the last trumps as a representation of the order of the universe, intended to guide us to the contemplation of God through the perfection of the universe he created.
The anonymous author is particularly clear: “ [the] contemplation [ofGod] is wisely presented by the Author in the following seven figures by means of his marvellous and beautiful works, so that,
knowing him, we love him.” (La contemplation del quale ci dimostra per l’opere sue maravigliose, et belle dottamente l’Auttore nelle sette figure seguenti, accioche conoscendolo l’amiamo).
The idea is that the heavenly bodies are so marvelous in order to induce men to love God. St. Augustine wrote: “Your works praise you so that we love you” (Laudant te opera tua,ut amemus te).
Since this concept was extremely common, and the order of the universe was often represented as evidence for the power of God, this is possibly the simplest and most conservative explanation.
Still, an important problem remains unsolved:
* the Final Judgment does not fit in a cosmograph. The cards was know as the angel since early times, but its iconography is quite consistent and it actually illustrates the resurrection of the dead before the Final Judgement.
A relatively minor problem is the position of the star: the sphere of the Moon was the lower of the heavenly sphere. The “sub-lunar” world was the realm of perishable things. All the stars were thought to be above the Moon. So the sequence should have been Moon, Sun, Star(s) or Moon, Star, Sun. A possible answer to this problem is that the cosmology has been ordered as a hierarchy of light.
Le Comte de Mellet, in his essay included in Gebelin's Le Monde Primitif, wrote that “like the Egyptian writing which reads to the left or the right, the twenty-first card, which was not numbered with an Arabic numeral, is nonetheless also the first, and must be read in the same way in order to understand the history”.
So, reverting the order of the trumps, De Mellett interprets them as:
* The World: the universe
* Judgement: the creation of man
* Sun, Moon, Star: the creation of the celestial bodies
* The tower: the expulsion from the garden of Eden.
He expresses his theory in a pseudo-Egyptian style, but actually what he sees in these trumps is very close to a summary of the biblical Book of Genesis.
I see the following problems with this theory:
* the order of the trumps must be inverted
* it does not make sense to put the beginning of the Bible at the end of the trump sequence (but, yes, if you invert the order, than the end is the beginning)
* some early world cards (e.g. the Visconti-Sforza, representing a celestial city and two angels) are not feasible as an illustration of the beginning of Genesis
* judgment is totally and deliberately misinterpreted (also De Mellet could recognize the resurrection of the dead: an angel sounding a trumpet, and the men leaving the ground, had to induce a painter, not very well versed in mythology, to see in this picture only the image of the Resurrection; but the ancients looked upon the men as children of the Earth [The teeth sown by Cadmus, etc.]; Thoth wanted to express the Creation of Man by painting Osiris, a generating god, with the speaking pipe or verb which orders matter etc.).
END OF TIMES NARRATIVE
Gertrude Moakley sees an eschatological message in the last trumps, since she interprets the Stars, the Moon, the Sun, Judgment and the World as an illustration of the Petarchan Triumph of Eternity. Actually, also the Devil and the Tower (e.g. as the destruction of Babylon) appear in illustrations of the Apocalypse or of related End of Times texts.
An end of times, eschatological narrative is also the interpretation proposed by Michael J. Hurst.
The Douce 134 manuscript linked by Huck and related to the XV Signs of the Last Judgment (XV Signa ante Judicium) presents images corresponding to all of the last trumps.
The End of Times narrative of course solves the problem of the Judgment trump, which is clearly and unambiguously related to Christian eschatology. It also explains the different forms of the World card, since the last vision of the Book of Revelation is described as a New World, a Heavenly Bride, the New Jerusalem and is often represented as a triumphing Christ.
Another advantage of the End of Times interpretation is that it is a description of the after-life, so this last section of the trump cycle is nicely linked with the previous one, which describes the vicissitudes of human life:
HumanLife → Death → AfterLife
Finally, if the Star, Moon, Sun sequence is seen as composing a hierarchy of light, it should be noted that increasing light also is a theme in the Book of Revelation:
021:002 And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from
God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her
021:023 And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to
shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb
is the light thereof.
So, the light of the new Jerusalem “trumps” that of the Moon and the Sun.
The metaphor is also discussed at the beginning of the Golden Legend (1260 ca):
The book of Apocalypse describes the first three signs: "The sun became black as sackcloth, and the moon red as blood, and the stars from heaven fell upon the earth." The sun is said to be darkened because its light was taken away so that it might seem to be mourning the father of a family, namely, man; or because a greater light, that of the radiance of Christ, had risen
The four last things
The four last things were used to summarize Christian Eschatology: Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven. Two of the four (Death and Judgment) are clearly present in tarot. Hell and Heaven could be represented by the Devil and the World respectively, but of course this is not so obvious. The Tower has also been interpreted as Hel (e.g. by Vincenzo Imperiali or le Tarot de Paris) but, on the basis of early Tower cards, it seems unlikely that this was the original intended meaning.
In general, the problem with the End of Times explanation is that it is difficult to find a narrative that perfectly matches the subjects of the trumps and their order. Possibly, the best candidate remains Matthew 24.
THE JOURNEY OF THE SOUL
The cosmograph can also be interpreted as journey through the different places (or spheres) that compose it. If this journey is interpreted as a mystical one, i.e as a vision due to the contemplation of the order of the universe, this is not so different from a generic “cosmograph”: the word “journey” is only used as a metaphor. This is the kind of “ascent” that Piscina and the anonymous author speak of. As I said before, this interpretation is attractive, and its main fault is that it cannot explain Judgment.
This passage from “The Life of Saint Francis” is another example of the spatial (in this case vertical) metaphor applied to mysticism:
Bonaventura wrote:Per trarre da ogni cosa incitamento ad amare Dio, esultava per tutte quante le opere delle
mani del Signore e, da quello spettacolo di gioia, risaliva alla Causa e Ragione che tutto fa
Contemplava, nelle cose belle, il Bellissimo e, seguendo le orme impresse nelle creature,
inseguiva dovunque il Diletto. Di tutte le cose si faceva una scala per salire ad afferrare Colui
che è tutto desiderabile.
That he might by all things be stirred up unto
the divine love, he triumphed in all the works of
the Lord's hands, and through the sight of their
joy was uplifted unto their life-giving cause and
origin. He beheld in fair things Him Who is
the most fair, and, through the traces of Himself
that He hath imprinted on His creatures, he
everywhere followed on to reach the Beloved,
making of all things a ladder for himself whereby
he might ascend to lay hold on Him Who is the
The problem with a more literal interpretation of the journey is that many non-Christian religions actually believe in an eschatological journey of the soul after death (e.g. the Egyptian religion, or also classical paganism), so it's easy to misinterpret a Christian metaphor as a pagan truth. I don't think that this non-Christian interpretation can add anything to the comprehension of the cards. In particular, it would leave the problem of the Judgment card open: since Judgment is a Christian concept, how can it coexist with an non-Christian view of the after-life? And is this “journey” accomplished by the soul before it is judged?
There is also a strictly iconographic consideration that makes the “journey” interpretation unlikely: when illustrations of many different places were meant to represent a journey, the people performing the journey were repeatedly represented in each, or most, of the locations. Think for instance of the illustrations of Dante's Commedia. A cognate closer to early tarot is the journey of Bianca Pellegrini in the Torrechiara Castle.