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The Female Pope: The Mystery of Pope Joan

by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe



JUST one facet of the development of Pope Joan's legend remains to be looked at, but it is important, for above all others it is the one which has made her image familiar to vast numbers of people. However, the Female Pope or High Priestess card in the Tarot pack only appeared some 200 years after the story of Joan first arose, so it cannot have influenced the myth in its formative stages. The card is normally given the number two in the Major Trumps, and card number five, The Pope, is its logical opposite; just as The Empress and The Emperor (three and four respectively) counter-balance one another. The Female Pope is usually portrayed as a seated woman wearing clerical dress and a triple crown, and holding an open book on her lap. A detailed discussion of her particular significance to fortune-tellers and other Tarot card readers would be out of place here. Suffice it to say that she is supposed to represent hidden or esoteric knowledge, which is appropriate enough for a figure like Pope Joan who was noted for her scholarship and, so some writers claimed, her experience in the occult sciences.

The origin and initial purpose of the Tarot is obscure, but there does seem to be a connection between what was probably the earliest Female Pope card to appear in the deck, and a genuine historical event.

Around 1260, a pious and wealthy woman named Guglielma of Bohemia (although she came from England according to one contemporary) arrived in Milan and quickly gained a following as a preacher. When she died in 1281, her body was entombed in the Cistercian house at Chiaravalle near Milan, and - as so often happened in the Middle Ages - a cult grew up around her relics. By the reign of Pope Boniface VIII (1244-1303), Guglielma's more fanatical followers had come to believe that she was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit and would return, to throw down the incumbent pontiff and install a young Milanese woman called Maifreda di Pirovano on the vacant throne. This would inaugurate the Age of the Spirit foretold by Joachim of Fiore, which was by then a little late, having been expected by Joachim's supporters in 1260. The date of Guglielma's return was set for the Pentecost of 1300, and in preparation Maifreda began to celebrate mass among her disciples, while plans were formulated for a new college of cardinals which would consist either entirely or at least partly of women. The ecclesiastical authorities could hardly be expected to look kindly on such a sect, even though it never had more than a couple of hundred members and was no real threat to them. Inevitably, Maifreda and several other Guglielmites, both male and female, became victims of the Inquisition and were burned at the stake in 1300. The movement died with them.(1)

Had these events taken place before 1250 it might even be argued that they could have given birth to the entire Pope Joan story, but in fact her legend pre-dates by many years the formation of the Guglielmite sect, which only came properly into being on the death of its eponymous leader. Perhaps the converse may be true. In the Age of the Holy Spirit, which was and still is traditionally thought of as female, it would be perfectly natural to have a woman ruling the Church, but there is no reason why such a woman should have been called pope, which is by definition a male title. It may be that the Guglielmites saw nothing odd in Maifreda being a future pope because they had heard rumours that another member of her sex, albeit in masculine disguise, had already attained the position.

Maifreda, a nun from the convent of the Umiliata Order at Biassono, forms a significant link between the Tarot and the Guglielmites, for she was a relative - probably a cousin - of Matteo Visconti, a member of the great Visconti family. It was this family which, two centuries later, commissioned several decks of Tarot cards. One, the so-called Visconti-Sforza deck attributed to Bonifacio Bembo, was almost certainly the first to include a figure resembling the female pope [illustrated on the front of The Female Pope dust-jacket, reproduced on the Home Page]. Instead of papal vestments she wears a brown monastic garment, but on her wimpled head is the triple crown of the successors of St Peter, while the characteristic book is open on her lap. Unfortunately, like the rest of the pack, her card bears no name, so a positive identification is impossible. Gertrude Moakley, the writer of the definitive book on the Bembo pack, believes she recognizes the nun's habit as belonging to the Umiliata order,(2) and argues therefore that the card represents Maifreda herself; an aspiring rather than a real pontiff.

Clearly the origin of the pack renders this theory not at all unacceptable, but one nondescript brown garment is much like another, and the case is not conclusively proven. There are, after all, several other possible explanations for the artist's inclusion of the un-named, mysterious woman. She may, for instance, be nothing more than a personification of Faith or Charity; two Virtues who often appeared as sombre and dignified females in the early tarocchi decks, which were the forerunners of the Tarot. However, the legend of Pope Joan was at the peak of its popularity in the middle of the fifteenth century when the Visconti-Sforza cards were made, so it remains quite likely that the woman was intended to be Joan herself. Certainly later Tarot-makers assumed this to be so. The earliest known list of the titles of the Major Trumps, which forms part of a sermon against the evils of gambling dating from about 1500, includes 'La Papessa';(3) and for 200 years most, though not all, decks featured her.

One noteworthy exception was the work of the Catholic designer Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, who - in 1664 at a time when the Catholic Church had acquired a more sceptical attitude to the female pope - was not content merely to cut her out of his tarocchini. Instead, he replaced the normal Pope and Female Pope cards with depictions of a standing and a seated pontiff, both bearded and therefore male, St Uncumber notwithstanding.

By the eighteenth century some Tarot decks had become more classically oriented, and included a card of Juno and her peacock, symbolizing immortality and resurrection, instead of the Female Pope. Juno, and her partner Jupiter on the Pope card, were especially popular in Switzerland and Southern France. The nineteenth century occultists, on the other hand, preferred the original version, but modified in such a way as to be more in keeping with their own beliefs. Many elements from magical symbolism crept in and the card's alternative title, The High Priestess, was increasingly used. To many designers the magical and occult features of the card were of paramount importance and the concept of Pope Joan was almost forgotten. It was probably Oswald Wirth who began the trend with his 'Papesse', whose papal mitre is surmounted by a crescent moon and whose book bears the yin-yang symbol. Wirth's symbolism was embroidered upon by A.E. Waite to the point where, in his enduringly popular pack, the former Female Pope is entirely unrecognizable. His High Priestess sits between the two columns of the Temple, inscribed 'B' and 'J', for Boaz and Jachin. She has a crescent moon at her feet, a scroll of the Torah in her hands, and her head-dress is uncompromisingly pagan.

This tendency to abandon the traditional image in favour of an odd mixture of pagan and Christian elements has continued to the present day, although an occasional modern Tarot still includes a pleasant enough portrayal of Pope Joan.

The woman pontiff's connection with cards does not end with the Tarot, however, for there is also a card game named after her. 'Pope Joan' seems to have derived at some time in the early nineteenth century from a French game called 'The Yellow Dwarf'. In its turn it gave birth to 'Newmarket', and while that game and its variants continue to be played regularly, 'Pope Joan' itself is now but rarely seen. The rules are much like those of 'Newmarket', except that the Nine of Diamonds or 'Pope' card plays an important role. An alternative title for this card is the 'Curse of Scotland', and a number of inventive but rather dubious explanations have been put forward to account for the appellation. None of them is in any way relevant to Pope Joan. In fact, there seems to be no obvious reason why her name should have been attached to the game at all.

Notes & References:

(1) Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (1888), III, pp.90-102.

(2) Gertrude Moakley, The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo (1966), pp.72-3.

(3) The relevant page from the Sermones de Ludo Cum Aliis is reproduced in Stuart R. Kaplan's The Encyclopedia of Tarot, I (1978), facing p.1.

Copyright (c) 1988 Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe

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