Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: The Popess, from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot
  • Creator: Bembo, Bonifacio, painter
  • Description: The Popess is one of 20 trump cards in a 78-card tarot deck, of a type commonly known as the Visconti-Sforza tarot, created for Francesco Sforza and his wife Bianca Maria Visconti circa 1450. The Visconti-Sforza tarot corpus consists of cards from fifteen separate decks; no single complete deck survives. This card belongs to the Pierpont-Morgan Bergamo deck, which scholars believe to be the second-oldest extant tarot deck following the Carey-Yale Visconti-Sforza tarot, dated 1442-47. The woman on the Popess card sits on a golden chair and carries a book in her left hand and a staff topped with a cross in her right hand. Though she wears an elaborate gold and white papal tiara, her robes are modest and unornamented save for a knotted rope belt reminiscent of Franciscan habits. Her chair rests on a dais among rich greenery before a rich tooled gold-leaf background. Despite a present-day association with divination, tarot cards originally functioned as commonplace playing cards, though they sometimes recalled allegorical themes.
    The entire Popess motif recalls the medieval legend of Pope Joan, a learned female pope who successfully passed as male until she gave birth in public and thus revealed her subterfuge. The Visconti-Sforza Popess resembles fourteenth and fifteenth-century woodcuts of the Pope Joan narrative, yet her dress is much simpler. In the 1960s, Gertrude Moakley offered a new interpretation that accounts for the ways in which the Visconti-Sforza Popess departs from Pope Joan imagery. According to Moakley, the Visconti-Sforza Popess’s simple dress combined with a papal tiara instead recalls Guglielma of Bohemia, a thirteenth-century holy woman who declared herself an incarnation of Christ and prophesied a future female papacy. Though the Church executed Guglielma for heresy, her followers elected a Visconti relative named Manfreda as her successor. Moakley posited that the Popess hearkened back to the Visconti family’s connection to the Guglielmite sect, based on Bianca Maria Visconti’s pride in her relation to Manfreda.
  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Games Guglielma of Milan, Mystic Joan, Legendary Pope Playing Cards Tarot
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: circa 1450
  • Related Work: Select cards from the Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo Visconti-Sforza deck: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Pierpont_Morgan-Bergamo_Visconti-Sforza_Tarot; See the entire Cary-Yale Visconti-Sforza deck: http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Search/Results?lookfor=Visconti%20Tarot&type=tag; Select cards from the Brera-Brambilla Visconti tarot: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Brera-Brambilla_Visconti_Tarot; Select cards from the Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo Visconti-Sforza tarot: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Pierpont_Morgan-Bergamo_Visconti-Sforza_Tarot
  • Current Location: New York, The Pierpont-Morgan Library, MS M 630
  • Original Location: Italy, North West, Milan
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Paper (Cardstock); Gold; Paint; Silver
  • Donor: Layman; Francesco Sforza; Laywoman; Bianca Maria Visconti
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 19/9/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Berti, Giordano ed. I Tarocchi: le carte di corte, gioco e magia alla corte degli Estensi. Nuova Alfa Editoriale, 1987. pp. ; Farley, Helen. A Cultural History of Tarot: From Entertainment to Esotericism. I.B. Tauris, 2009. pp. 38-57 ; Moakley, Gertrude. The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family: An Iconographic and Historical Study. New York Public Library, 1966. pp. 13-16 ; Newman, Barbara. "Heretic Saint: Guglielma of Bohemia, Milan, and Brunate" Church history 74:1 (2005), 1-38;