Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Most Celebrated Popess

There are so many Christian popess figures, and I have time to post only a few of each type. I am inclined to ignore the most famous popess, Pope Joan, as she is perhaps the least relevant to Tarot. Most of the known popess figures in art and literature are allegorical, like the popess in Tarot. This is in contrast to figures which represent a particular individual, whether historical, legendary, or mythological. However, as a supposed Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Joan is another well-documented rebuttal to the view that a popess is inherently non-Christian. Just as importantly, she is the only popess likely to be familiar to most historians. Therefore, as part of my series of posts on the many and diverse female popes in art and literature, she must be included. Moreover, there is one example which merits special attention – we will save her for last.

Before getting to Joan, passing mention needs be made of another popess, Sister Manfreda (Maifreda da Pirovano). Like Pope Joan, Manfreda was not an allegorical figure. Although burned as a heretic in 1300, Sister Manfreda was also a Christian, a nun of the Humiliati order, claiming to represent the true Christian faith. There are no depictions of her sporting papal attributes, neither keys nor papal tiara. The most intriguing aspect of Manfreda concerns one particular Tarot deck, a lavish Milanese deck from about 1450. The Popess in the Visconti-Sforza deck is enthroned, wears the magnificent papal tiara and holds a great processional staff, while wearing very plain robes with a specially knotted cincture. Gertrude Moakley offered a thesis to explain these conflicting attributes: the Visconti-Sforza Popess was conflated with Manfreda, who was also related to Matteo Visconti, of the family by whom the deck was commissioned. This is not wholly convincing, but it is much better than any alternative yet proposed. There is little more to be said about Manfreda as female pope.

The legendary, i.e., fictional, Pope Joan, (Papesse Jeanne, L'Anti-Papesse, Päpstin Johanna, Johannes Septimus, Johannes VIII Femina ex Anglia, Papa Fœmina, etc.) was invented in the 13th century. The earliest versions placed her life in the 11th century, and the writers had not yet invented a name for her. Later writers named her, added other details, and moved her life farther back in time to the 9th century. This folklore was appealing on various levels, most obviously in terms of misogyny. Women are bad; here is another example. This would be reason enough for Boccaccio to adopt it as counterbalance to his (faint) praise of women. More generally, Pope Joan was a parable of pride and the virtue of knowing one’s place. More subversively, the story was a rude thing to say about the hierarchy of the Church, that someone so wholly inappropriate as a woman could rise to the very highest level. For these and other reasons, the legend was widely accepted as fact, and her tale was included among the popular (and routinely illustrated) biographical encyclopedia of Boccaccio as well as in historical chronicles, including the famous Nuremberg Chronicles. This picture is from a copy of Jans Enikel’s Weltchronik.

Pope Joan in the Weltchronik, c.1420.

In terms of the history of popess illustrations, Tarot’s Popess is among the oldest. However, as the Enikel Weltchronik illustrates, some depictions of Pope Joan pre-date even Tarot. Our next example is from a 1403 French manuscript, a translation of De Claris mulieribus. The third dates from the first quarter of the 15th Century. It is from a Laurent de Premierfait translation of Boccaccio’s De Casibus: Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes.

Pope Joan, c.1403

Pope Joan, early 15th C.

Later editions of Boccaccio were printed, and some included woodcut illustrations. This example is from a German version of De mulieribus claris, from about 1474.

Pope Joan, c.1474.

Pope Joan continued to be illustrated through the centuries. In Friedrich Spanheim’s 1694 Histoire de la Papesse Jeanne, the frontispiece has a very sexy version of Pope Joan, her barely-concealed breasts shocking the assembled clerics, enthroned and crowned with the triple tiara, holding a main de justice scepter. A 1758 edition of Histoire de la Papesse Jeanne has additional illustrations, including an artistic composite of images from Giacomo Filippo Foresti’s 1497 version of De mulieribus claris and the Nuremberg Chronicle image of Joannes Septimus. (See Van Rinjberk’s Mysterious Papesse for a discussion of these and other images.)

Pope Joan in Spanheim, 1694.

Pope Joan in Spanheim, 1758.

Our final Pope Joan is the only one with any significant iconological relation to Tarot. The lowest trumps in Tarot represent all Mankind, although the details of their individual interpretation are subject to debate. The prisoners in Petrarch’s Triumph of Love are also taken to be universal, or very nearly so. In both works, these are the ultimate protagonists of the subsequent hierarchy of allegorical triumphs and eschatological dénouement. A Venetian artist who was illustrating Petrarch’s Triumphs in 1488 added Pope Joan to the prisoners in Cupid’s triumphal procession. Cupid even gave the popess pride of place, in the front of his retinue. This is doubly appropriate since she is not merely a victim of Love but also an exemplar of the sin of Pride.

Pope Joan in Petrarch’s Triumph of Love, 1488.

September 12, 2012 postscript:

There is another aspect to Pope Joan’s connection with Tarot. A couple years ago, Marco noted a direct parallel between Boccaccio’s description of Joan’s great crime, (being a female priest and administering the sacred rites), and a preacher’s condemnation of Tarot’s Popess in strikingly similar terms. This was in the so-called Steele Sermon, circa 1500. According to Boccaccio, Joan was able to maintain her role as a male cleric until she presumed to “deal with all the sacred mysteries and proffer them to others, something which the Christian religion does not allow to any woman”.

Boccaccio’s Tale of Pope Joan
Concerning Famous Women, trans. by Guido Aldo Guarino, 1963

The author of the Steele Sermon, who misunderstood much about the Tarot trump cycle, condemned the Popess for “that which the Christian faith denies” to women. The similarity with Boccaccio’ famous account suggests that the anonymous preacher mistook Tarot’s Popess for Pope Joan and condemned her for the same offense. If that is the case, then we have an early example of the inability or unwillingness to consider the trump cycle allegorically, and/or jumping to a false conclusion based on preconceptions. These traps remain dangerous five centuries later.

October 22, 2012 postscript:

There are a great many images of Pope Joan available, in books and online. Above I posted some of the earliest as well as the single one which is genuinely relevant to Tarot, along with a few others. There is another one which merits posting, however. It is from a 17th century book; the full title gives the gist of the thesis: A Present for a Papist, or, The Life and death of Pope Joan: plainly proving out of the printed copies and manuscripts of popish writers and others, that a woman called Joan was really Pope of Rome, and was there deliver'd of a bastard son in the open street, as she went in solemn procession. Written by Alexander Cooke, it was published in London in 1675. The frontispiece was essentially reproduced in the 1740 edition, shown below, except for being reversed L-R.

It is noteworthy because of the doggerel, which conflates the two "bad girls" in the pantheon of Popess figures, Pope Joan and the Whore of Babylon. Such conflation of a primary subject with a secondary one is a common feature of early Tarot cards.


  1. Hello Michael,

    First thank you for another great and instructing post.
    I remember seeing a conversation about the last picture you posted on tarot-history, but can't seem to find the thread - how can we identify undoubtedly this feminine pope figure to Pope Joan ? Or maybe there are doubts and Pope Joan is simply the most plausible identification in that case ?

    Thanks in advance


  2. Hi, Bertrand,

    Personally, I have no doubt whatsoever.

    1. Pope Joan is a perfect illustration of a victim of Love.
    2. The 1488 date and Venetian origin, as well as the depiction itself, preclude anti-Catholic satire, such as one might find in later German prints shown in previous posts.
    3. Identification of the popess as some aspect of the Virgin, as shown in previous posts, is obviously absurd.
    4. Identification of the popess as some allegory of the Church, including any of the many examples I have provided in previous posts, makes no sense.

    Those are the only four categories of popess which I have found. One of the four is an obvious and perfect match with the meaning, the subject matter of the image. The other three are nonsensical in the context of a Triumph of Love.

    Best regards,

  3. There is another approach to the question. From earlier in 15th-century Italy and continuing for centuries, it was conventional to include some clearly identifiable figures as Cupid's captives. In the early Italian depictions, these would routinely include such persons as Aristotle, identifiable by virtue of being ridden by Phyllis, and Samson, identifiable by virtue of having his hair cut by Delilah. These are specific individuals.

    As I noted at the very top of this post, Pope Joan is unique in being the only popess who is not an allegorical figure but rather a specific person. Even the Virgin, when she is shown with a papal tiara, is an allegorical figure, typologically identified with the Church.

    In some later French cycles of Petrarchian Trionfi, triumphs of Chastity, Death, and so on would be shown triumphing over allegorical figures. However, the lowest triumph, Love, would usually still triumph over representative individuals. One particular tradition (Salomon, Greuter, Coornhert) showed Love triumphing over all ranks and conditions of man, symbolized by the sort of attributes which were typically found in Vanitas compositions. Coornhert is probably the clearest example:

    Best regards,

  4. Hi Bertrand, Michael -

    I think a few other details make Pope Joan the certain identification here. First the figure is depicted with a wimple, which only women wear.
    Second the book she is holding, which refers to Boccaccio's account, the most well-known version of Pope Joan's story - she rose because of her book-wisdom, and fell because of her lust.
    Finally, on that last point, the rabbit is a symbol of lust, and one is placed conspicuously at her feet.
    Popes (males) were not proverbial whoremongers, yet, in 1488. Alexander VI and the Protestants had not yet entered the picture.
    So the only wimple-wearing, book-bearing, lustful "Pope" that it could be, is Pope Joan.


  5. Hi, Ross,

    Indeed. The bunnies were conventional even then. And Boccaccio explained the role of lust for Pope Joan.

    Boccaccio is a key, not merely because of that and his prominence. Among other things, I think that the comparison of quotes you did a couple years ago -- I need to look that stuff up -- the one from Boccaccio and the one from the Steele Sermon, make a good case for the connection between the Pope Joan and Tarot. Not that Pope Joan was the intended meaning, but simply that she was "the most celebrated popess" and the subject which came first to people's minds when they saw a popess.

    I need to add a footnote with those quotes... later.

    Best regards,