Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on Tarot

The Popess


Essay by Andrea Vitali, 1995


Translation revised by Michael S. Howard, April 2016


[Translator’s note: this card is sometimes today called The High Priestess, a term put into use by de Court de Gebelin in 1781 Paris. Papessa, Popess  in English, is the feminine form of the Italian Papa, meaning Pope].


The Popess [Italian Papessa] appears in the Visconti-Sforza Tarot (figure 1) as a woman dressed in a monastic habit; in her right hand she holds up a rod with a cross, in her left hand the Book of Wisdom (the Bible or the Gospels). On her head, she wears the typical “Triregnum” [triple crown].


The iconographic predecessors of this card are to be found among the personifications of the highest moral and religious virtues, as we can see in the 12th century illuminated initial known as “Sapientia Domini”, Wisdom of God (1which shows the same attributes, as well as the monochrome “Fides” [Faith] painted by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (figure 2). 


Faith, as the first of the octave verses says, (accompanied, as in the frames of the other images, by a three line scenario), presents herself hieratically, with the symbols of her charge: in her right hand, she grasps a rod with a cross on top, in her left hand a scroll where the first affirmations of the Nicean-Constantine Creed can be read. Under the double ensign of Faith and Reason, she subdues idols and stands out strongly above the rock, surrounded by light,  angels and human creatures. She also crushes a horoscope, with the signs of the Zodiac, under her feet; a large key to the kingdom of heaven is tied to her right hand. Another detail: the cloak and tunic are torn in various places, indicating the lacerations that took place in the course of history (schisms and heresies). “Compared with Dante’s faith, this faith focuses more on teaching and expresses itself in symbolic forms of a definitely scholastic kind” (2).  The verses say the following: “Figurata et ierata / presentatur homini, indiscussa manet fides… cuius autem valet tactus / aprobando loyter. Congregavit subiugavit / ydola viriliter, coronatur et fundatur / supra petra firmiter, angelorum et virorum / confortatur numine, mire recta et perfecta…” (Figured - i.e. depicted with her canonical symbols - and hieratic, she appears to man, faith remains beyond discussion… and her value lies in the influence coming from evidence provided by logic. She gathered and subdued the idols with much force, is crowned and firmly based on the rock, comforted by the consensus of angels and men, wonderfully just and perfect). The only difference from the image that we find in the ancient tarot is the scroll, which replaces the book.


A beautiful representation of the Fides with a bishop's attributes is situated on the eighteenth century tombstone of Conventual Prior Melchior Alpheran de Bussan in the floor of the Cathedral of San Giovanni at La Valletta. (figure 3), while with the attribute of Lex Canonica [Canon Law] (figure 4it was engraved by Sébastien Le Clerc (1637-1714), together with Sacred Scripture, Sacred Theology and Lex Civilis [Civil Law]. At the Abbey of Santa Maria del Monte in Cesena a 17th century votive offering depicts the Blessed Virgin and Child with the tiara over the head of both (figure 5 / figure 6 - detail)


The presence of Faith in the tarot order fits in perfectly with the medieval Christian vision of the Mystic Staircase allowing one to achieve contemplation of God. Thomas Aquinas has this to say in his Summa Theologiae: “The perfection of the rational creature does not only consist in what is his by nature, but also in what is granted to him by a supernatural sharing in the divine goodness. This is why we say that the ultimate beatitude for man consists in a supernatural vision of God, a vision which man cannot achieve except as a disciple under the magisterium of God, according to the words of the Gospel “every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me (John 6; 45)  (…). Therefore, for man to reach the perfect vision of beatitude, he must first believe in God, as does a disciple in his master" (3), and later “As we explained above, what is indispensable to man in order to reach beatitude belongs properly and essentially to the object of Faith  […]" (4).


In the tarot order of the 16th century Sermones de Ludo, the Popess is rightly placed next to the Pope since, as Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa Theologiae “Faith is a gift given first of all to the Church; it is only in faith that the Church never fails; it is only in the Church that Faith is never ‘formless’, but always ’formed’, that is, alive and animated by charity" (5). "Here Saint Thomas does not understand the Church so much as an exterior and visible community which 'administers the doctrine of belief', but as an entity which believes and professes the faith. In this sense, it involves the mystery of the real sanctity which the Church possesses, and hence the Church as a mystic reality.  […]. The profession of faith is presented in the symbol in the name of all the Church, which owes its unity to its faith. But the faith of the Church is a formed faith (formed by charity): and such is the faith of those who belong to the Church by number and merit (qui sunt numero et merito de Ecclesia). This is why the symbol shows a profession of faith suited to a ‘formed’ faith: and also why the faithful who do not have a ‘formed’ faith try to achieve it” (6). In other words, the true Faith is to be found inside the authentic Church (represented by the Pope), and cannot exist outside it.


[Translator’s note: in Italian there is no distinction, except through context, between the virtue “Faith” (in English without the definite article), and “the Faith”, meaning a particular Faith, in this case that of the Nicean Creed  The same is true in Latin, although without the definite article. In what follows, “la Fede”  is mostly as “Faith” but both English meanings should be borne in mind. In practice, during the centuries under consideration in Italy, they amounted to the same thing].


It is an undeniable fact that the Popess of the tarot represents Faith, since the same friar, the author of the Sermones, describes it with the words “O miseri quod negat Christiana fides” [O wretches (or miserable ones) because (or which) the Christian faith refuses (or denies)] [translator: unfortunately the fragmentary nature of these words leaves some ambiguity as to the meaning], a phrase which looks like the incipit [first line] of a longer expression, since the monk adds the graphic symbol for etc. to the word fides, in the same manner as in other parts of the Sermones. In the way it appears, the sentence is impossible to translate, but what is of interest is that the friar made reference to Faith.


This Sermones appears as an invective against the games of dice and cards, including the Triumphs, according to the concept among the clergy of the times, who attributed their origin to the Devil (the good monk actually gives us the name of the little devil responsible, Azaro) in his desire to lead men to perdition: In fact, he writes “This is the reason why men blaspheme more more in gambling [nel gioco, literally "in the game"] than at other times, since they call on as many devils as there are dots on the dice to bring on their ruin. And since everybody loses at gambling, the opinion is that that money - where there is the blood of God, of Christ and of the saints - ends up in the hands of devils, who distribute them to desperate people who ask for money from the demons. And ultimately all will end up in poverty, and most will finish by dying on the gallows. Therefore, keep away from gambling, otherwise etc.” This sermon is important since - apart from the purpose for which the friar composed it - it offers us information about a tarot order  which closely resembles what must have been the original, based on the medieval concept of the Mystic Staircase. Also, the comments of the author reflect the hypothesis of some as to the meaning of certain cards, like “El mondo cioè dio padre” (The world, that is, God the father), “Lo caro triumphale vel mundus parvus” (The triumphal chariot or small triumph); so also the Popess is put in relation to the Faith. 


In the card of the Visconti-Sforza Tarot, currently at the Pierpont Morgan Library, Geltrude Moakley saw the image of Sister Manfreda Visconti-Pirovano, a relative of the Visconti who had been elected popess by the small Lombard cult of the Guglielmites, burnt at the stake in the autumn of 1300. Their monastic habit was that of the Umiliate, an order recognized by the Church. There might be something true in this hypothesis, if we remember the tendency to identify the figures in the Visconti-Sforza packs with members of that Lombard family.


Ludovico Antonio Muratori speaks of Guglielmina and of her vicar Sister Manfreda in the “LX Dissertazione” (Sixtieth Dissertation) of his work Antichità Italiane [Italian Antiquities\ when speaking of “Quali eresie ne’ secoli passati abbiano infestato l’Italia” (Which heresies in past centuries infested Italy): “And since writers of history know little of this famous woman (Guglielmina), and I have been able to read in the renowned Ambrosian Library her authentic trial, held in the year 1300, and the history of her errors drawn up and penned by Puricelli Readers will not be discontented if I briefly tell the story, since it is well worth being handed down to future generations, so that nobody allows themselves to be captured by the dreams and deceptions of such petty women in the future. The trial is entitled “contra Guilielmam Bohemam, vulgo Guilielminam, ejusque Sectam” (Against Guglielma Bohemian, by the common people Guglielmina, and her sect) (7):


“I. First of all, she claimed that she was the Holy Spirit, incarnate in the female sex, and the daughter of Constance wife of the king of Bohemia, and queen.

II. In second place, as the Archangel Gabriel had announced to the Virgin Mary the Incarnation of the Divine Word, in the same way, the Archangel Raphael had announced to Queen Constance the Incarnation of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and a whole year later, on the same day, Guglielmina was born.

III. As Christ was true God and true Man, in the same manner, she claimed 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.

IV. Like Christ, she was to die in her human nature, not in her divine nature.

V. She, too, was to rise 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.

VI. As Christ left as his Vicar on earth Saint Peter, so he could rule his Church; in the same way, she too left as her Vicar in the world, Mayfredam Ordinis Humiliatorum Sanctimonialem.

VII. Imitating Saint Peter, this Mayfreda would celebrate Mass at the sepulchre of the incarnate Holy Spirit; and with a solemn procedure, she would repeat the same Mass, and sit, and preach in the Metropolitan Basilica of Milan, and later in Rome, at the Apostolic See, where the Apostles and Disciples would be gathered, as they were with Christ.

VIII. Mayfreda was supposed to be a true Popess, with the powers of a true Pope; and this meant the Pope and the Roman Papacy of the times would have to be abolished, to give way to this Popess, and in this manner the Jews, the Saracens and other nations which are outside the Roman Church, and are not even baptized, would be baptized.

IX. Once the four ancient Gospels had been removed, four others would take their place, after having been written on orders by Guglielmina.

X.  As Christ after the resurrection let himself be seen, she too would do the same with her disciples.

XI. Anyone visiting the Monastery of Chiaravalle, where she would be buried, would receive the same indulgence as he would by going to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Therefore, pilgrims would come from all over the world to visit her tomb.

XII. All the followers of this Holy Spirit were threatened by many evils and by death, just as happened to the Apostles of Christ and their followers, some of whom would imitate Judas by handing over their followers to the Inquisitors. Such were the main abominable teachings and the ridiculous fictions of Guglielmina, I shall leave the rest aside. All of this was not intended by Guglielmina herself, but by the aforementioned Mayfreda, and by a certain impious Andrea Saramita. Perhaps they had heard of similar delusions from Simon Magus, described by Eusebius and by Saint Epiphanius. What is surprising, perhaps, is that Guglielmina ended her days in the year 1281, and was first buried in the church of San Pietro all’ Orto, and at the beginning of the following year, her bones were transferred to the Monastery of Chiaravalle, and placed in an honourable burial. One of those monks wrote her praises, treating her as a saint anda healer. Lamps and candles would stay lit in front of her burial site. Her devotees also established three feasts at the Monastery. Mayfreda herself celebrated Mass at home, and her followers would kiss her hands, receiving her blessing, and sometimes hosts as a Eucharist. One can see what ignorant and unwise people are capable of, if left to their opinions and to a foolish credulity. However God the guardian of his own true Church did not allow this delusion to triumph for long among the people of such a religious and Catholic town. In the year 1300 the cult of Guglielmina was discovered, her bones burnt, her sepulchre removed. Andrea Saramita and Mayfreda Nun, the leaders of the heresy, as obstinate disciples of Guglielmina, ended their days amidst the flames. And thus did the fantastic and impious tragedy of these people come to an end" (8).

From the 17th century onwards, the Popess has always been depicted seated, with a book in her hands, while a drape generally frames the upper part of the figure, as in the Vieville Tarot (figure 7). ) This image has been taken over from the iconography of the legendary Pope Joan as it appears in the chapter dedicated to her by Jacques Philippe Forest (Jacopo Filippo Foresti) in his De claris selectisque mulieribus (On chosen and famous women) (1494) (figure 8). This image finally becomes stabilized in the later cards and in the Marseilles Tarot (figure 9). In the Renaissance there was widespread belief that “Pope Joan” was represented in this card.  In the work Le Carte Parlanti (The Talking Cards) by Pietro Aretino, the cards, discussing  the meanings of the triumphs, say that  "La papessa è per l’astuzia di quegli che defraudano il nostro essere con le falsità che ci falsificano" (The Popess is for the shrewdness of those who defraud our being with falsehoods that falsify us), that is to say, the female pope is there to represent those who deceive with facts or words that are false, but believed as true (9). 


Only later was it realized that the story of Pope Joan was initially an invention of the orthodox but antipapal world, later taken by the Lutherans as a clear proof of the corruption of the papacy, image of a Rome prostituted like ancient Babylon. In any case, for a long time many people thought that the Papessa portrayed in the tarot referred to Joan. Already in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it is understood to be a legend and Giancarlo Passeroni (1713-1803) in the seventh canto of his Cicero so expressed in this regard:


La favola cioè della Papessa,

Che non è stata mai, che nè tarocchi,

Tra i quali per ischerno è stata messa,

Bench’ abbiano sognato alcuni sciocchi,

Che vi sia stata, e ch’ abbia detto messa,

Cercando gettar polvere, negli occhi,

E mostrar per lanterne men che lucciole

Certi scrittor da mele, anzi da succiole.


 Non so, come non abbiano vergogna

Costoro d’ inventar certe imposture,

Parti d’ ingegno, che delira, e sogna,

E d’inserirle ancor nelle scritture:

Da questo sol concludere bisogna,

Per tacer d’altre prove più sicure,

Che ciechi son costor peggio che talpe,

Sebben credon veder di là dalle alpe.


(The story of the Papessa,

Who never existed except in the tarots,

Among which she was placed for mockery,

Nonetheless some fools have dreamed

That she existed and said mass,

Trying [with this invention] to throw dust into our eyes

It shows that through lanterns that are worth less than fireflies

Certain writers are [better suited to writing] of apples or indeed of boiled chestnuts.


 I do not understand why they are not ashamed

To invent such impostures,

Inventions of an intelligence of delirium and dream,

And to include them even in their writings:

From all this must only be concluded,

Keeping silent on other proofs more secure,

That these are blind worse than moles,

Although they believe they see beyond the Alps) (10).


The work Quinta Essentia, by Leonard Thurneysser Zum Thurn, shows a woman with a crown on her head. She holds a key in her right hand and rests her left arm on a book  (figure 10) with other books next to her. All of them are on alchemical, philosophical, and religious topics, such as the Herbarium, the Quinta Essentia, the Misterium Aeternitatis and the Bible. Her mouth is shut by a padlock, and she sits on a chest with the words Thoh and Azot etched into it. Some historians have interpreted this image as a depiction of the Alchemical Popess.


In the card of Oswald Wirth’s occultist tarot, the Popess holds in her right hand a book on which appears the Chinese Tai-chi symbol of the Supreme Tao, formed of the opposites Yin and Yang, and  in her left hand (figure 11) the keys of St. Peter (Matt. 16:19).




1Biblia Sacra (Holy Bible). Florence, Laurentian Library, Ms. Mugell, 2, f. 189.

2 - Claudio Bellinati, Giotto, Ponzano/Treviso,  Vianellolibri (Vianello Books), 1996, p. 133.

3II-II, q. 2, a. 3; cf. De Ver. q 14, a. 10. In "Battista Mondin, Dizionario enciclopedico del pensiero di San Tommaso D’Aquino (Encyclopedic dictionary of the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas)", Bologna, Ed. Studio Domenicano (Dominican Studio Edition), 2000, p. 289.

4II-II, q. 2, a. 7. Ibid, p. 290.

5 II-II, q. 1, a. 9, ad 3. Ibid, p. 291.

6 - Idem

7 - Dissertazioni sopra le Antichità Italiane, Già composte e pubblicate in Latino dal Proposto Lodovico Antonio Muratori, e da Esso poscia compendiate e trasportate nell’Italiana Favella. Opera Postuma. Data in luce dal Proposto Gian-Francesco Soli Muratori suo nipote (Dissertations on Italian Antiquity, Previously compiled and published in Latin by the Prevost Lodovico Antonio Muratori, and from Him thereafter summarized and conveyed into Italian Speech. Posthumous Work. Given into light by the Prevost Gian-Francesco Soli Muratori his nephew), Vol. 3. At Milan, at the expense of Giambattista Pasquali, MDCCLI (1751), p. 309. 

8Ibid,  pp. 310-311.

- On the work The Talking Cards, please see the essays The Theatre of Brains and Symbolic Suits.

10Il Cicerone, Poema di Ginacarlo Passeroni (Cicero, Poem of Ginacarlo Passeroni), Part Two, Vol. 3At Bassano, at the expense of Remondini of Venice, MDCCLXXV (1775), p. 164.


 Copyright  by Andrea Vitali  © All rights reserved 1995