Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Florentine Allegory of the Lord's Mercy

“Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and you shall find: knock, and it shall be opened to you. For every one that asketh, receiveth: and he that seeketh, findeth: and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8.) In the previous post I mentioned three striking examples of Roman Catholic allegory which included a female figure with papal attributes. Below is a fourth spectacular allegory, a fresco depicting the Lord's Mercy personified. It pre-dates Tarot by roughly a century. At more than 700 years old, Giotto's 1306 depiction of Faith (right) may be the oldest representation of an allegorical personification wearing the papal tiara, although that identification of her headwear has been questioned. (As an aside, a similar funnel-shaped crown is used in some depictions of the Coronation of the Virgin, including the c.1380 Agnolo Gaddi and the c.1440 Fra Angelico.) The conical tiara and the small key, along with the processional cross, are at least reminiscent of papal attributes. Moreover, Giotto's Fides is also a close cognate for the image in Tarot, a Roman Catholic allegory with processional cross and text in hand, sometimes with St. Peter's keys as well. The Florentine fresco of Mercy (below) is only 36 years younger than Giotto's putative popess, and there is little doubt about the nature and meaning of her hat, “the old-fashioned papal tiara that she wears”.

Allegory of the Lord’s Mercy
School of Bernardo Daddi (1342)

In general terms this appears to be an example of the well-known subject, the Madonna Misericordia. Common to that topos, the central figure is appealed to by a multitude of supplicants, and appears to be the protector of those below, including the city of Florence. Unlike those many related figures, the Allegory of Mercy is shown with hands folded in prayer, (a gesture symbolic of Hope), rather than with outstretched arms shielding her devotees. This is an allegory of Mercy rather than a particular aspect of the Virgin. As such, Mercy is shown as a female figure with papal attributes rather than as the Virgin per se. To make this identification perfectly clear, the figure's tiara is explicitly labeled Misericordia Dom[ini], identifying her as a personification of the Lord's Mercy. Nonetheless, given the pervasive popularity of the similar Madonna of Mercy paintings, and given the typological identification of the Virgin with the Church, the Florentine allegory of Mercy with the papal tiara is instantly recognizable as a direct cognate. Many art historians therefore mistakenly refer to this allegory as another example of Madonna Misericordia.

Mercy's papal tiara may appear odd, but when this allegory was painted in 1342 the beehive triple-tiara was a novelty. A single tiara, like that shown in Giotto's c.1297 depiction of Pope Innocent III (right), or his pupil Maso di Banco's c.1340 depiction of Pope Sylvester (left), was still typical at the time. The triple tiara or triregno may have been introduced as early as 1315, but artists continued to use the traditional form, even occasionally into the 15th century. An example from the late 15th Century is the Pope card in the so-called Charles VI Tarot deck. The artist may have used it to suggest a generic pope rather than the current one or, alternatively, perhaps to suggest Pope Innocent III who was such a forceful proponent of papal authority. A final late example is from Hans Memling, c.1485. It is the center panel of the two-sided Vanity/Redemption triptych.

The red "T" on Mercy's tiara is the letter Tau:

... another emblem for Christ's sacrifice, specifically as a type of cross. This symbol traces its origins to pagan Antiquity, appears in the Old Testament, and attracted the attention of early Christian exegetes commenting on how frequently members of their communities employed it. The "T" remained in use during the trecento, associated with the performance of works of mercy.

William R. Levin describes describes the figure and the scene before her:

Within a decorative border containing a number of significant details, each individually framed, the central portion of the Allegory of Mercy appears beneath an archway resting on spiral colonettes. Dominating the image is the fresco's main figure representing Misericordia, the virtue Mercy, rendered frontally and about life size. She hovers above the schematized topographical view of the city, identified as "Civitas Florentiae" on its crenelated front wall. Within the city are visible a number of recognizable landmarks of mid-trecento Florence seen from an aerial point of view.

In this detail one can read the legend and appreciate some of the landmarks of Florence.

Levin cannot identify the 36 subordinate figures with any certainty. They may "represent the broad-based membership of the Misericordia Company, or perhaps the diverse group of individuals who endowed the confraternity, or those who benefited from it, or possibly some combination of these interwoven constituencies." However, their function is parallel to that of the cityscape:

...these small figures flanking Misericordia do embody the Civitas Florentiae in all its diversity; for their varied facial features, dress, age, and sex, they are the city in human rather than architectural form. To Misericordia's right (the viewer's left), the side of honor, are six orderly registers of male figures, three in each row, while female counterparts are similarly arranged to her left.

The text above Mercy's shoulders is from Matthew 25:34: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The roundel that appears to be held in Mercy's hands is from Psalms 32:5 (34:5): “the earth is full of the mercy of the Lord.” The roundels to the left and right are from Proverbs 3:3 and Matthew 5:7 (the 5th Beatitude): “Let not mercy and truth leave thee, put them about thy neck”, and “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” The four words on the left and three on the right refer to the seven Works of Mercy: VISITO, POTO, CIBO, REDIMO, TEGRO, COLLIGO, and CONDO. “Together, these words constitute a mnemonic formula written by the Franciscan Conrad of Saxony well over a half-century before the Allegory of Mercy was painted. Mantra-like, by 1342 it must have been a commonplace.”

The eight illustrated roundels show Works of Mercy. Border figures include the Lamb (Jesus) and the Dove (Holy Spirit), and also allegorical animals representing virtues, such as the stork fighting a snake (Justice) and pelican feeding its young (Charity) in the diamonds shown below. Personified virtues with polygonal halos and the emblems of the Evangelists are also included in the border. The quotes above (excepting biblical quotes) are from a 2004 book book about this work: The Allegory of Mercy at the Misericordia in Florence: Historiography, Context, Iconography, and the Documentation of Confraternal Charity in the Trecento, by William R. Levin.

In the previous post I identified three types of female figures with papal attributes: Catholic allegories, Pope Joan, and anti-Catholic allegories. While searching for allegories with papal tiara today, Ross and I came across a fourth category, aspects of the Virgin wearing the triple tiara. The two examples of the Coronation of the Virgin, mentioned at the top of this post, seem to be wearing the older form of the tiara, while at least two types of the Virgin wearing the triple tiara are depicted online: 1) the Virgin of the Rosary and 2) the Virgin of Loreto. Most depictions of these two subjects do not include the papal tiara, but it is nonetheless a recurrent variation. They are very similar and sometimes conflated. Here is an example from each sub-category.

I began the previous post by noting how negligent and biased many traditional writers have been regarding the Popess, and how useful the Internet can be in searching out period art works. In only a few hours of searching, not only can previously cited cognates be found online, most notably those linked in the previous post, but also additional examples in some abundance, and earlier examples. And although these may represent new findings (in terms of being introduced to the Tarot community), they suggest no new conclusions. Since the time of Moakley (1966) and Kaplan (1986), the two salient categories of cognate figures, (and the example of Sister Manfreda), have been known to everyone interested in Tarot iconography. What remained was to explain the specific allegory within the Tarot trump cycle, and no additional external cognates are going to change that.

June 18, 2009 Postscript:

Yesterday, Jean-Michel David posted a note to the Tarot History Forum. Apparently he has long mistaken the Popess in Tarot for the Virgin. (The idea that the Virgin would be one of the lowest trumps is an obvious absurdity. However, this is a traditional error among modern occultists who lack the faintest conception of the meaning of the trump cycle and therefore imagine any figure in any position. The mistake goes back at least to Robert V. O'Neill.) Jean-Michel discovered an illuminated document with yet another image of the Virgin wearing the triple tiara (surmounted by a cross). This attribute suggests that she is being depicted in her capacity as an allegory of the Church, in addition to her role as a patron saint of the College. The document is an illuminated Founder's Charter upon Act of Parliament for King's College, Cambridge, dated March 16, 1446. It shows the Lords and Commons petitioning Henry VI, who prays for his College, while the Virgin and St Nicholas, patron saints of the College, are shown above. Mary is attended by the Trinity overhead. Here is a detail from the image.

July 3, 2009 Postscript:

Ad hoc Catholic allegories, rather like the Lex Canonica personification in the previous post, were probably more prevalent than any Tarot writers have imagined. Jehan Cousin's 1883 The Book of Fortune, which is online at both Google Books and the Internet Archive, includes a number of interesting drawings from an unpublished 1568 manuscript, Emblemata Fortunae. Some are well known, others are perhaps unique. The following emblem is titled Fortunae Imperatrix Providentia. It illustrates an idea common from the time of Boethius, that Fortune is ultimately the (blind) agent of Divine Providence. (This idea has been suggested as being relevant to Tarot's World card, rather than the Popess. Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi is a more direct, but closely related reading.) In this unusual emblem, which apparently survives only in Cousin's drawing, Divine Providence wears the triple tiara. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that Providence appears Janus-faced, with a light face and a dark one, a convention common to Fortuna.

November 14, 2010 Postscript:

This appears to be the book cover and Popess cognate image which Ross referred to in his comments. Better late than never?

September 2, 2013 Postscript:

I should have posted this about a year ago, when I found it. However, since Marco just linked to this post, it seems again -- better late than never. There's a Flickr image of it online, and also another pic of the whole page.


  1. Hi Michael,

    I like your typology in four categories. It also helps to think in terms of regional variations - so far we haven't seen any Italian ms. depictions of Boccaccio's Pope Joan (have we?)

    Besides the example of Sister Manfreda/Maifreda, we have also the variety of vernacular uses of the terms "papessa" and "papesse", which weren't known to either Moakley or Kaplan, or anybody else that I know of.

    This is important because it seems to be a scholarly commonplace - judging by Boureau, Rustici, and Newman - that the Tarot card is Pope Joan and/or Maifreda (the "and" coming in when the legend of Pope Joan is seen as somehow relating to Maifreda, as Boureau does; the "or" is Newman's choice, and she denies it is Pope Joan, implicitly because of the absence of a baby). This implies that they know of no other options, or ways of understanding the term.

    So we have other examples of Popesses in literature and history besides Manfreda (outside of your four iconographic categories of papally attired women).


  2. One more to add to the hermeneutic tradition is mentioned by Daniela Pagliai, writing on "La Papessa" in "L'iconografia degli Arcani Maggiori" (Berti and Vitali, eds. Le carte di corte: I Tarocchi (Nuova Alfa, 1987), p. 164), and repeated by Vitali in his "La Papisa" essay -
    (first paragraph).

    The manuscript image cited, Biblia Sacra, Firenze, Biblioteca Laurenziana, Ms. Mugell, 2 f. 58, is to the best of my ability unavailable to view on the web. Pagliai describes it as "A strict analogy with the Papessa, which faithfully prefigures the attributes, is presented by an initial with the Sapientia Domini painted in the XIIth century."

    She goes on to mention Giotto Fides. As I said, I couldn't find this Mugell 2, f. 58v image, but in the bibliography to the Biblioteca Laurenziana site for Mugell 2, they mention this work,

    "Bibbie miniate della Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana di Firenze. Secondo contributo"

    A cura di Laura Alidori Battaglia, Lucia Benassai, Lucia Castaldi, Melania Ceccanti, Elisa Fusi, Francesca Gallori

    pp. XXII-358 + 32 tavv. f. t., € 138

    SISMEL, Galluzzo (isbn 978-88-8450-217-9)

    Of which there is an image of the title page.

    Given the cross and book, and the overall attitude of the enthroned woman, I would bet that this is Mugell 2, fol. 58v that is shown on the title page.


  3. Sorry I forgot to give my reasoning for thinking that the cover picture of "Bibbie miniate della Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana" is very likely our picture of "Sapientia Domini". Really it's just a hunch, but there are some reasons.

    First, this book reproduces f. 58v of Mugell 2 -
    Ampia descrizione del manoscritto e bibliografia. Riproduzione delle cc. 31v, 58v, 108r, 151v, 164v, 189r (p.: 81-98, tav. 1, fig. 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)

    (see last link above). The book (2006) talks about and gives illustrations from 12 bibles, but Paglia (1987), whom the exhibition chose out of all the contributors to write on the Popess, must have known *something* about the range of medieval images available for comparison. She chose only this one, so I assume it is rare, if not unique.

    Finally, it does in fact "prefigure" in many salient ways the Popess, minus the aureole and papal crown (and context, but all of these articles are surveys of related iconography and previous literature rather than attempts to really interpret the series).


  4. Hello Michael,

    Thanks for this extraordinary post, and your extraordinary blog.

    Given the state of denial in which the tarot community exists, I believe it is very important to give a wider exposition to your research/findings/ideas. It is for this reason that I would like to offer my help at translating some of your post into Spanish. Please contact me via e-mail if that is of your interest.

    All my best, and thanks again for the work you do,

    Enrique Enriquez

  5. Hello Michael,

    Would it be possible for you to forward references for the image of the virgin of the rosary which you have pictured above (dark skinned virgin and child). I am researching a very similar painting c1600, and would be most grateful for any help you may be able to provide. I would be happy to send you some pix, should they be of interest (I'll need an email address)
    Best regards,

  6. That one came from a Russian page. It doesn't appear to have any identifying information. The image is down toward the bottom of the page, and there are several others there.


    There are dozens of black Madonna di Loreto online. Unfortunately, I have done no research on them. I merely collected a few as examples of them as one category of "female figure with papal tiara". The purpose of that limited research was to identify conventional uses of the motif, as a background for understanding the Popess in Tarot.

    I know the story of the Loreto house in general, and the historical story of darkened Madonnas. I am also somewhat familiar the modern esoteric legends of the Black Madonna/Magdalene that were created in the late 20th century, but that's about the extent of my familiarity. I'm sorry that I can't be of any assistance.

    Best regards,