Gertrude Moakley (The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo, 1966) introduced the Tarot world to a possible original source of the Papess card: Maifreda (or Manfreda) Visconti da Pirovano was to be declared Pope in Milan on Easter 1300 in a new age of the Holy Spirit. Instead, Maifreda and others in the sect were, that year, burned at the stake, along with the disinterred body of Guglielma, who had inspired this new movement. Could Maifreda be depicted on the Tarot Popess card?
Maifreda was an Abbess in the Umiliati Order and first cousin to Matteo Visconti, the Ghibelline (anti-pope) ruler of Milan. Maifreda believed the Holy Spirit had manifested on earth in the form of Guglielma (d. 1281), a middle-aged woman with a grown son who claimed to be a daughter of Premysl Otakar,King of Bohemia, and, who on arriving in Milan in 1260, donned a “simple brown habit” and lived the life of a saint. To the Guglielmites, her arrival fulfilled a prophecy of St. Joachim de Fiore that a new age of the Holy Spirit would begin in 1260, “heralding the inauguration of an ecclesia spiritualis in which grace, spiritual knowledge and contemplative gifts would be diffused to all.” Although she vehemently denied it, “rumors of divinity already swirled around Guglielma during her lifetime.” And, “Her words about ‘the body of the Holy Spirit,’ together with her mysterious royal origins, Pentecostal birth, imputed healings and stigmata, coalesced to create a more-than-human mystique in the minds of her friends.” Immediately after her death dozens of portraits were painted and chapels were dedicated to Santa Guglielma. (Visconti-Sforza card on the right – her cross at top left is hard to see.)
Barbara Newman (aka Mona Alice Jean Newman) presented the most complete account in English of the Guglielmites in her From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature, but it is in her more recent paper, “The Heretic Saint: Guglielma of Bohemia, Milan and Brunate,” that we learn important details that make an attribution to Maifreda as Papess much stronger than previously thought (all quotes and information not otherwise attributed are from this article).
Many tarot scholars since Moakley have doubted Maifreda as source, nor do they give much credence to an older assumption that the card depicted Pope Joan (see article by Ross Caldwell). Instead, modern thinking proposes that it was always an allegorical image of Fides (Faith—see Giotto image to right), Sapientia (Wisdom), Ecclesia (Holy Mother Church) or the Papacy itself. Here’s an image from the Vatican itself:
Alternately, she could be Isis (see below with Hermes Trismegistus & Moses by Pinturicchio in the Vatican), the Blessed Virgin Mary or a priestess of Venus (below) —see especially Bob O’Neill’s “Iconology of the Early Papess Cards” and Andrea Vitali’s essay on “The High Priestess.” Even Paul Huson in Mystical Origins of the Tarot finds it difficult to believe the Visconti family would memorialize a family member burned at the stake as a heretic.
Certainly “Faith” and “Holy Mother Church” may be referenced in the Tarot image, but they were probably of a more heretical sort than the orthodox church has ever sanctioned. Andrea Vitali recounts a summary of the trial of Guglielma and her followers in which we find:
“As Christ was true God and true Man, in the same manner, she [Guglielma] claimed herself to be true God and true Man in the female sex, come to save the Jews, the Saracens and the false Christians, in the same way as the true Christians are saved by means of Christ.” [Tying her story in with the final cards of Judgment and the World, we find,] “She too claimed she would arise again with a human body in the female sex before the final resurrection, in order to rise to heaven before the eyes of her disciples, friends and devotees.”
O’Neill objects that “beyond the deck specifically produced for the Visconti about 1450, the local Milanese phenomenon of Guglielmites is unlikely to be the source for the image on earlier decks, for example, the 1442 deck mentioned in an inventory of the Este estate in Ferrara.” But, as Newman’s paper points out, Matteo Visconti’s son, Galeazzo, married the Duke of Ferrara’s sister in 1300 and lived there from 1302-1310, so Ferrara had its own early connection to this saint. Furthermore, Guglielma’s story and veneration were popularized in Ferrara by 1425 through a hagiography (saint’s life) by Antonio Bonfadini, and in Florence through a popular late-15th century religious play by Antonia Pulci—although they garbled her history. (15th century deck on the right is known as the Fournier/Lombardy II.)
Matteo Visconti (first Duke of Milan and first cousin to Maifreda) had as an advisor his good friend, Francesco da Garbagnate—an ardent devotee of Guglielma. Matteo was at the center of his own long battle with the Church, having expelled the Papal Inquisitors in 1311, and being himself excommunicated in 1317, tried for sorcery and heresy in 1321, and having Milan placed under interdict in 1322. Matteo’s grandmother and uncle (archbishop of Milan) had earlier been named heretics. (Pope/Papess? card, left, is from the “Cary Sheet” found at the Sforza Castle, Milan.)
From Newman’s article, we learn that Maifreda’s convent was in Biassono, but she fails to note that Biassono is only five miles from the small town of Concorezzo that in 1299 was home to 1,500 Cathars. (I’ve since been told that this source is wrong and that most of the Concorezzo Cathars were burned as heretics or driven out by 1230). After the Albigensian crusade many small towns around Milan became refugee outposts of this faith, of which Concorezzo was a center, and may have inspired the order of nuns who called themselves the “humble” (umiliati)—[correction: the Cathar influence on other groups is not known.]
The most compelling bit of data making the attribution of the Papess card almost certain is that between 1440 and 1460 Bianca Maria Visconti, wife of Francesco Sforza and duchess of Milan, frequently visited Maddalena Albrizzi, Abbess of monasteries in Como and Brunate, and gave aid and gifts to the Order. (Brunate is just north of Milan with Biassono between them). Even the stones for the Como monastery were donated by Francesco Sforza. The Visconti-Sforza deck (first picture in post) was probably commissioned by or for Bianca Maria. Around 1450 (the same period as the deck) a cycle of frescos were painted in the Church of San Andrea at Brunate that recorded the story of Guglielma:
“How she left the house of her husband, came to Brunate, and lived a solitary life here, wearing a hairshirt and ordinary dress . . . in the company of a crucifix and an image of Our Lady.”
Only one of these frescos, ornately framed, remains today near the original chapel that had been dedicated to Saint Guglielma (see above). It depicts Guglielma with two figures kneeling before her. She appears to be giving a special blessing to a nun. Newman identifies the two as Maifreda and Andrea Saramita (he was the main promulgator of her divinity as the Holy Spirit). Others, more convincingly, claim them as Maddalena Albrizzi (founder of the monastery and candidate for sainthood) and her cousin Pietro Albrici who renovated the church. Even as late as the nineteenth century, Sir Richard Burton, author of The Arabian Nights, noted that “Santa Guglielma, worshipped at Brunate, works many miracles, chiefly healing aches of head.”
It seems reasonable to conclude that Bianca Maria Visconti may have had a special devotion to the woman whom, 150 years after being condemned by the Inquisition, so many Lombards venerated as a saint, and that she honored an earlier family member, Maifreda, who served as Guglielma’s Vicar—hiding her in plain sight as an allegory of Faith.
Let’s ask the question about the source in a slightly different way: Would it have been possible for Bianca Maria Visconti to have not seen this card as Maifreda? Likewise, would it have been possible for a church reformer of the time, familiar with Maifreda and Pope Joan, to have not seen this card as an allegory of Heresy instead of Faith? For instance, a monk wrote in Sermones de Ludo Cum Aliis (c. 1450-1480) about La Papessa, “O wretched, it is what the Christian Faith denies.”
I’d be remiss to not mention the very real possibility that the Popess represented St. Clare of the Poor Clares, the female branch of the Franciscans (right).
Or, perhaps she was simply the Church in contradistinction to the State as seen below in which a Popess and Empress represent each of these.
Later Swiss, Germans and Belgians de-sacralized the deck, finding both Pope and Papess objectionable and substituting for them cards like Jupiter & Juno, Bacchus & the Spanish Captain, or the Moors. The Papess, it seems, has always been a mysterious and disturbing force, spreading anxiety instead of the calm assurance one might expect from Faith.