Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pre-Tarot Images of Pope Joan

Tarot's Popess has been cited as proof positive of the Pagan (or mystical, heretical, alchemical, non-Christian, etc.) nature of the cards. Such claims are a sure indication of an ill-informed writer, negligent and biased. There are many period images of female figures with papal attributes. These may be usefully grouped into three categories: 1) Roman Catholic allegories, 2) the legendary Pope Joan, and 3) anti-Catholic (Protestant) allegories, commonly in the guise of the biblical Whore of Babylon. Given the dignified depiction of both the Pope and Popess in Tarot, her presence is obviously not as anti-Catholic satire. The body of cognate images from which to draw parallels is therefore entirely Roman Catholic, which is perfectly consistent with the overall design of the trump cycle and the milieu in which it originated. Perhaps the most spectacular examples of a popess as Catholic allegory are the Triumph of Lepanto (noted by Stuart Kaplan in The Encyclopedia of Tarot v.II), Triumph of the Papacy and the Triumph of the Church.

Triumph of Lepanto—Spain-Papacy-Venice
Georgio Vasari (1572)

Triumph of the Papacy—The Council of Trent
Pasquale Cati da Iesi (1588)

Triumph of Church—Triumph of the Eucharist
Pieter Pauwel Rubens (1628)

Ross and I have been collecting images of female figures with papal attributes for a number of years now, but the Internet provides some great advantages. Yesterday Ross mentioned that he would really like to discover a pre-Tarot Popess. Despite having found numerous examples from each of the three categories, none seemed to be earlier than the 1440s, when Tarot is first documented. I replied that there were probably such images of Pope Joan in early manuscripts of Boccaccio's De Casibus or De Mulieribus Claris, and before even finishing that email I found a reference to several such manuscripts and (via Google Books) a reference to BNF ms. fr. 12420, dated 1402 (or 1403). Ross subsequently looked up several of these via BNF's Mandragore search facility, and I obtained a photocopy of the 12420 Pope Joan from Craig M. Rustici's The Afterlife of Pope Joan, (2006).

BNF ms. fr. 12420, f.155v, (above), dated 1402, may be the earliest example we found. The manuscript is a copy of Laurent de Premierfait's translation of Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris.

BNF ms. fr. 598, f.151, (right) dated from the beginning of the 15th century, is very similar. The manuscript is a copy of an anonymous translation of Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris.

BNF ms. fr. 226, f.252, (left), dated from the 1st quarter of the 15th century, is also quite similar. The manuscript is a copy of Laurent de Premierfait's translation of Boccaccio's De casibus. Small versions of this image are online in several places, (e.g., Pope Joan and one of Ross' own pages), albeit with little indication of the source. In this case, we had a pre-Tarot example but didn't know it. Each of these three illustrations pre-dates the earliest known Tarot decks by decades. Each of these illustrations depicts a walking procession in which a woman with papal regalia produces an infant from her abdomen. This was clearly a convention for Pope Joan, at least in French manuscripts, and the large majority of subsequent illustrations of her also include rich papal regalia and a baby.

Ross has put many of the popess images he has collected online, (most of them since 2005), along with some related findings and conclusions.

Aeclectic Tarot Forum:
A question about la papessa satire

The name papessa or papesse in the 15th century

The Church as Papesse in 17th century printer's marks

Papesse engravings in 17th century ecclesiastical books

Pope Joan portrayed without her baby

An essay on the Tarot's Popess and Pope Joan

A close look at tiaras on the papal cards

The Church as Papesse correcting Synagogue (Broken link)

Sacerdotum versus Imperium

The Church as Papesse in art from the 15th to 19th centuries. (Broken link)

Canon Law from Icones Symbolicae
P. S. Christoforo Giarda (1628)

Pope Joan, First Among the Captives
Detail from Triumphus Amoris (1488)

February 8, 2010 Addendum

This post and the subsequent one detail the kinds of allegorical and legendary persons that were represented by female figures with papal attributes. It is noted above that the entire body of cognate images from which to draw parallels is Roman Catholic, which is in keeping with the overall design of the trump cycle and the milieu in which it originated. A sixteenth-century example of such a reading of the Popess has just been translated and put online.

Alberto Lollio's well-known Invettiva (c.1550) mocking Tarot instigated a relatively obscure Risposta by Vincenzo Imperiali. Both have been put online, and Marco posted a translation of key passages of Imperiali's rejoinder. The Risposta is, for the most part, an exercise in casual narrative gloss. It could just as easily have been posted on a Tarot forum, given the sloppy reading of the trumps and their sequence. Blah-blah-blah. However, in the last six lines he describes the six lowest cards quite meaningfully, in a way that is sufficiently explanatory that it can serve as an iconographic exegesis or ekphrasis of the lowest trumps. In particular, he explains the Empress and Popess as State and Church, consistent with the kinds of allegory discussed above.

Poi viene il Papa,con l’Imperatore,
Et ciascun d’essi hà la sua donn’ à canto,
Che senza donne star, lor non da il core.
Chiamato vien l’un Sacro, e l’altro Santo,
pur vogliono buffoni, et giocolari,
Et pazzi in tutto, con risibil manto.
Then the Pope(5) and the Emperor(3) come,
each with his woman at his side because
their hearts forbid to them to be without women.
One is called Sacred(2), the other one Saint(4),
but they want jokers and jugglers(1)
and complete fools(0), with funny dresses.

Imperiali's description, "each with his woman at his side", fits one of the two Ferrarese orderings, and the card references in the translation are numbered according to this sequence:

Matto/Bagatto / Empress/Emperor / Popess/Pope

The Emperor and Pope represent Imperium and Sacerdotum, the ruling powers of Imperio and Sacerdotio, the State and Church. The male figures are the rulers, the “heads” of State and Church, while the female figures are the ruled, the “body”. According to a different metaphorical relation, the State and Church are the wives of the Emperor and Pope in the same way that the Church is the Bride of Christ, whom the Pope represents. The “Sacred” one Imperiali refers to is the Sacro Romano Imperio, the Holy Roman Empire, while the “Saint” is the Sainted Virgin, Sancta Virgo and her typological alter ego, Sancta Mater Ecclesia.

Thus, the Empress and Popess are the Holy Roman Empire and Holy Mother Church. These are, after all, the basic allegorical meanings of the Empress and Popess in Tarot. That meaning has been apparent to anyone reading (and thinking critically) about Tarot since Kaplan explained it in detail, giving an illustrated example, a quarter century ago:

In medieval and Renaissance art, a female figure was often allegorical, whereas the male figure was used to represent a specific mythical or historical man. Thus, since Sampson evoked the quality of great strength, the Strength card in several decks portrays a female figure with the attribtes of Sampson, a pillar and a lion skin. The Popess may represent the papacy itself, without any reference to any particular pope or female leader. An example of a woman crowned with the papal tiara can be found in Giorgio Vasari's picture commemorating the defeat of the Turks at the battle of Lepanto. [Reproduced at the top of this post.] The alliance of Spain, Venice and the papacy is represented by three women embracing, with the "popess" wearing the triple tiara and holding the two keys traditionally belonging to the pope.

This makes the gist of the Imperiali passage obvious and mildly amusing. The Emperor and Pope are married to these holy brides, i.e., they have a fiduciary obligation to them, but they would rather be having real fun instead of allegorical marriages. This recognizes their responsibilities (taking care of the Empress and Popess) as well as their temptations (having fun and playing games with fools and other entertainers). Imperiali has laid out the primary significance of all six of the lower cards, and made sense of them and their ordering in a way that virtually no one in the Tarot community has done. It's not a meaning that is acceptable to today's rabidly anti-Christian Tarot community: it is respectful albeit waggish wordplay acknowledging the powers and obligations of papacy and monarchy. Just like Tarot.

February 10, 2010 Correction

Marco has pointed out to me that my understanding of the passage cannot be correct. (Being a semi-literate, English-only reader has its dangers. Great thanks to Marco for pointing it out to me.) He assures me that poetic license and the needs of versification cannot account for the problems with my reading. The six lines make no individual reference to the Empress and Popess at all. The terms Sacro and Santo, being masculine, MUST refer to the Emperor and Pope a second time rather than identifying the Empress and Popess.

Then the Pope(5) and the Emperor(3) come,
each with his woman at his side because
their hearts forbid to them to be without women(2,4).
One is called Sacred(3), the other one Saint(5),
but they want jokers and jugglers(1)
and complete fools(0), with funny dresses.

As Marco explained, the reference is to il Sacro Romano Imperatore (the Holy Roman Emperor) and il Santo Padre (the Holy Father). Mine was a lovely interpretation, but apparently an untenable blunder to literate readers. This means that the final six lines are as jejune and, iconographically, worthless as the rest of Imperiali's verses. While I'm happy to accept the grammar for what it entails, I'm sad that Imperiali missed the opportunity to write something more subtle, complex, and profoundly meaningful. A ruler's heart should belong to God and those he rules over, just as Christ's Sacred Heart is Divine Caritas for the Church, his bride, rather than just to nameless "women". As a ribald jab at the rulers it is still mildly amusing, albeit without any serious content and failing to substantiate Imperiali's thesis, "there is some mystery in this game, as many valid minds affirm." Perhaps by "mystery" he meant coarse humor.

I'm leaving this blunder online, with its correction from only two days later, as an example of a larger aspect of Tarot history and iconography. It exemplifies the skeptical approach to pre-Gébelin Tarot. In addition to presenting my own iconographic analyses of Tarot and other works of art and literature, almost every post on this blog includes an argument, if only implicit, against some bit conventional Tarot lore. Many of the posts explain and mock examples of the rampant nonsense that dominates Tarot-history forums. This is not contrarian gainsaying for its own sake, nor a mindless anti-occultist bias. My position is that of skeptically evaluating the evidence and reasoning, if any, of those pervasive claims about fortune-telling, heresy, alchemy, Pagan subject matter, Kabbalah, vacuous blather about numerology, and so on. Most of what passes for Tarot history is fantasy sprinkled with cherry-picked factoids.

Skepticism means keeping an open mind, not an empty one that draws no conclusions, nor an uncritical one that accepts all claims as equals. Some people think that a skeptic rejects all truth claims, draws and defends no conclusions. This is the extreme know-nothing position of Pyrrhonian skepticism. Modern skepticism, as the term is commonly used by self-described skeptics, means 1) drawing justifiable conclusions based on existing evidence, 2) defending those conclusions with that evidence and rational argument, but 3) defending them with the facts rather than against the facts. In other words, holding those conclusions provisionally. In my Addendum two days ago, I asserted a conclusion and defended it as best I could with the evidence and arguments I had. That exemplified points #1 and #2. Today, given new evidence, (i.e., a better understanding of the original evidence), I'm doing something that most Tarot enthusiasts never do. As soon as new and contradictory evidence was presented, I abandoned my previous position. That's called "learning", and it illustrates both the provisional nature of the conclusion and the insistence on arguing with the facts rather than against them.


  1. Great you found the 12420!

    Looking back at some of those old pages of mine, it looks like I'll have to update them (e.g. my comments about vernacular use of "papesse" not being found earlier than c. 1440 - presumably the French translations of Boccaccio use it (although the title of the chapter in 12420 (Laurent de Premierfait) is "Jehenne Englesche Pape", and in 599 (Anonymous) it is "Jehane Anglesche Pape", so I don't actually *see* the word "Papesse" in the text, nor in 226 or 232. In any case, we can presume it existed).

    Thanks for bringing all these images and links together.


  2. Hi, Ross,

    I don't have borrowing priv. at Fullerton, so I didn't get a good scan -- just a photocopy.

    The main points of the post centered on the word "yesterday". The Internet does -- sometimes -- enable one to actually find something specifically sought. Also, the old excuses for traditionally ignorant and perversely biased stories about Tarot don't excuse anything in the 21st century. (IMO, Moakley and Dummett voided those rationalizations a quarter century ago.) Also, of course, it was an opportunity to put three of my favorite papal allegories together, along with a list of your popess pages. (pre-Gebelin is now -- finally -- being indexed routinely by Google.) Lex Canonica (my 4th favorite papal allegory) will be added as at the end, but I don't have time at the moment.

    Best regards,