La Papessa

The Visconti-sforza La Papessa Card

The Franciscan in the Tarot


1.  La Papessa

A  surprise awaits members of the Franciscan Family among the earliest surviving Tarrochi Cards, created between 1392-1447 for Duke Filippo Visconti of Milan.  Only one example of the La Papessa card exists among  the three hand-painted decks.  It features the portrait of a young Poor Clare Nun, with the distinctive Franciscan cord around her waist, a copy of the Rule on her lap and a papal tiara on her head.[1] Despite her youth, this Sister of Penance is evidently the abbess of her community, as her crosier affirms.  Now what in the world, we may well ask, is a Poor Clare Abbess doing here in the Devil’s Alphabet!

Inquiries into the identity of La Papessa have centered upon the most incongruous portion of her regalia, the three tiered papal tiara she wears, signifying the Pope’s authority over earth, purgatory and heaven. Two women have been proposed as being likely subjects for this card, one from medieval legend and one from history.  Each of them once wore a triple tiara during her life, even if for only a brief moment.

The legend of Pope Joan is a monkish cautionary tale against uppity women that tells of a woman disguising herself as a man in order to become ordained as a Catholic priest.  She was such an exemplary priest that she was eventually consecrated a bishop and in time elected the Bishop of Rome, or Pope. However, her imposture was short-lived, and her deception was exposed when Pope Joan had to interrupt a Pontifical Procession in order to give birth.

There is one very important reason why Pope Joan could not be the woman who inspired the Visconti Trump.  While La Papessa is clearly a nun, Pope Joan was never a religious sister but rather a woman who disguised herself as a man to become ordained a priest.

New York research librarian Gertrude Moakely has suggested an alternate identity for La Papessa, that of Sor Manifreda, a nun from Milan who was once elected Pope by members of a Milanese heretical sect that proclaimed her to be the Vicar of the Holy Spirit.  On Easter Sunday in the year 1300, Sor Manifreda was robed in pontifical vestments, and then offered the Eucharist for her assembled devotees.  The following August, she and many of her followers were arrested, questioned and burned at the stake by the Holy Roman Inquisition.[2]

While Ms. Moakley’s hunch that La Papessa is Sor Manifreda does not offend our observation that she is a nun, still our Franciscan eye does object to her hunch.  Sor Manifreda was not a Poor Clare nun, but rather a member of the Humiliati Order.  We can suppose that the very talented artist who created this portrait could easily have painted his subject in the habit of a Humiliati nun if he so desired.  Instead he took great care to paint this woman in the distinctive habit of a Poor Lady, prominently displaying the knotted rope cord of Saint Francis, which commemorates her three vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.[3]

An altogether different way of inquiring into the identity of the Visconti La Papessa card might begin by bracketing the controversial tiara for a moment, and examining instead the place of this card within the overall trump series.   Twenty-two originally unnamed and unnumbered portrait cards were added at some point to an ordinary four suit deck in order to create the first Tarrochi Deck.  This fifth suit of Trumps is known as the Major Arcana, and the members of this suit are ordered among themselves according to a strict hierarchy.  In the earliest recorded version of the Trump order, the La Papessa card followed and therefore directly trumped the Emperor.  She was herself trumped by the blessing of the Pope.

This leaves us with a couple of pointed questions for Sor Manifreda.  Shouldn’t the La Papessa card be placed after the Pope, if the point of including her was that she once trumped the Pontiff, even for an hour?  We might also ask, by what logic did Sor Manifreda ever trump the Holy Roman Emperor?  There is no indication in her life story that she had any interaction with him.  How then is her trumping of him in the Tarorochi justified?

We would add the additional observation that the woman in this card appears so sweet looking and beautifully drawn, she appears to have managed trumping the Emperor without resort to treachery or foul play.  She evidently maintained his good will even after having triumphed over him in some way.

On the other hand we also have to ask ourselves how likely would it be that an abbess of any cloistered monastic community of women would ever meet, much less trump an Emperor in any way?

We have ended up with five clues for understanding this woman according to the direct testimony of our painter:

1.  That she be young.

2.  That she be a Poor Clare nun.

3   That she be abbess of her community.

4.  That she trumped an Emperor.

5.  That she did not lose his respect.


2.   Agnes of Bohemia

In the year 1235, a delegation of distinguished diplomats arrived in Prague, the capital city of Bohemia, to ask King Wenceslaus for the hand of his twenty four year old sister, the Princess Royal Agnes, on behalf of their Imperial master, the Holy Roman Emperor.   Frederick II was one of the greatest free thinkers of the Middle Ages, a polyglot who spoke six languages, and was conversant with both Moslem and Jewish thinking, as well as with the philosophy of his most Christian subjects in Northern Italy, Sicily, and Germany.

Agnes was no stranger to the patriarchal custom of political betrothal.  Indeed, this would be her third engagement, and her second opportunity to become Empress of the West.   She was betrothed at the tender age of three to her cousin Boleslaus, who died when she was only twelve years old.  Most recently, she had been engaged to marry Frederick’s own son Henry.  But the brash, young King of Germany led a revolt against his father and lost.  Henry killed himself rather than face the wrath of his father over his rebellion.  Such was the sad fame of Emperor Frederick’s temper.

The whole of Europe was dumbfounded when the Bohemian Princess refused the proposal of the known world’s most powerful and wealthy widower.  Princess Agnes talked her brother King Wenceslas into allowing her instead to found a monastery in Prague, where she and her sisters could live according to the strict penitential observance of the Poor Ladies of Assisi.   It was as if the beautiful Princess Diana of recent, fond memory had originally refused the proposal of Buckingham Palace in order to found a convent of Mother Teresa’s Sisters.

It is hard to know exactly why Princess Agnes decided to let the chance to become the First Lady of the Empire side right on past her!  Did it have to do with Frederick himself, with his older age, his bold, freethinking liberalism, or his daunting competences and quirky genius?  Or was she simply tired of being a pawn in a political game determined by men?  Perhaps it was simply just too overwhelming to even consider marrying the bullying father of her terrified, former fiance?

Needless to say, the grand Imperial delegation was forced to re-pack all their expensive gifts and return with the bad news to his Imperial Majesty, whose least favorite word was “No.”  Yet ever the gallant Most Christian Savant, the Emperor offered a good-natured, quotable, and even semi-humorous reply to his failed ministers.  “If she had chosen any other suitor, I would have found him and killed him.  But since she has chosen to marry my own sovereign Lord and King, Jesus Christ, how can I be upset!” [4] Emperor Frederick even graciously helped finance the construction of her new monastery in Prague.

In the story of how Agnes of Bohemia once refused the hand of an Emperor to become a Poor Lady, a Franciscan Nun, a Sister of Penance, we have discovered a suitable candidate for the historical subject of the Visconti La Papessa portrait.  She fits all five of our alternative criteria:  that she be young, a Franciscan Nun, the Abbess of her community; and having once trumped an Emperor by refusing his hand in marriage, she managed nonetheless to maintain his respect and he helped build her convent..

Setting the Visconti Emperor, La Papessa and Pope cards alongside each other in a row we can see the story of Agnes of Bohemia enacted in these Trumps.  We notice that each of these personages is shown on the triumphal platforms of their carnival chariots.  But that of the elderly, Emperor has been turned toward Agnes of Bohemia, so that he appears to be offering her his orb, the  symbol of his Imperial Dominion.But Sor Agnes is turning  her head away from his offer, seeking instead the blessing that is being offered to her by the Pope.               Stuart Kaplan tells us that indeed one of the original names given to the Pope card was “The Blessing.”  We may further enquire since the Visconti version of the Pope does not have any persons actually kneeling in front of him, as does the Marseilles’ Trump, to whom is his blessing being offered, if not to the person on the previous card?  Indeed her brother’s Kingdom was aligned with neither the Empire nor the Papacy, so her choice did indeed please the Holy Father Gregory IX..

3.  The Tiara

The fine craftsmanship evidenced in these Visconti portraits shows the careful artistry of their painter(s).  In fact, the only discordant detail among them is the clumsy placement of the tiara atop La Papessa.  Looking carefully, one can’t help but notice the slightly odd positioning of this massive crown upon her head.  It is centered over her left eye, rather than her nose.  Whereas her head is tilted, the tiara is upright and was set in place without regard for the delicate turn of her head.  In fact, it appears that a spare, generic tiara was put here some time after the original portrait had already been designed and completed.

After all, the painter did not have to bend her head. La Papessa could have easily been shown facing forward, as are the other three crowned persons seated on their platforms in this section of the trump series.  Instead her head is slightly down-turned toward the next card.  It would be very difficult to believe that the artist who painted this delicate bending of her head ever expected a large, front-facing tiara to sit atop it.  The tiara appears as to be an afterthought, added to the original portrait sometime after it was originally completed.

4.  Conclusion

If indeed the original name for the Pope card was The Blessing rather than The Pope then the original name for the nun accompanying him was most likely not La Papessa.  Gertrude Moakley has convincingly suggested that the Visconti Trump figures commemorate a real Mardi Gras Parade in Milan, during Duke Filipo’s reign.  Princess Agnes, who rejected the honors of the world to become instead a Sister of Penance, perhaps accompanied the Pope as a representation of Penance, the Lenten Spirit that trumps everyone, even the Emperor and the Pope, during the Lenten season.  Her life story actually embodied the theme of the only story in town on Mardi-Gras, “Remember mankind that from dust you came and into dust you will one day return.”

Simply and humbly, Sor Agnes remained in place, even after the huge tiara was set on her head — exactly the sort of crown she had rejected in real life.  Soon Agnes found herself on an inadvertent and extended missionary journey beyond her native culture into the realm of nonbelievers, and yes even among some alleged playmates of the Devil.  Deprived of the community of her own religious sisters, La Papessa nonetheless managed to maintain her contemplative character during her long sojourn among the Occult Trumps, although admittedly her robes now more often resembled those of the Goddess Isis than of Lady Clare.

What did you learn there in your exile from all that was familiar to you Sor Agnes?  For yours was the ultimate Ecumenism, the long overdue Gnostic reconciliation.  What was it like to have been “On the Bus” with all those mages and fortune tellers, rubbing your chaste shoulders with the likes of Madame Blavatsky, Alistair Crowley, and Ken Kesey?  What did it cost you to remain a Poor Lady there, amid all the huckstering for profit swirling around you?   And how in the world did you ever manage to nurture your chaste life while surrounded by such relentless license?

In the last Century, Sor Agnes returned home from her missionary journey into the more esoteric realms of the Human Psyche.  In 1980 Professor Michael Dummett published his scholarly reference work, The Game of Tarot, showing that the Tarot cards were not actually adapted for occult use until the 1781 publication of Le Monde Primitiff by Court de Gebelln.[5] The original figures of the Visconti Major Arcana were definitely not occult emblems after all, but more likely, as Gertrude Moakley observed, originally members of an orthodox Catholic Mardi Gras pageant.

Then in 1989 Sor Agnes was honored with outpourings of loving devotion, from her own Catholic Church as well as from her Bohemian descendants.  During a national Czechoslovakian student protest against the oppression of Soviet Russian Control, Pope John Paul II canonized Agnes of Bohemia a Saint of God.

Only days later in Prague St. Agnes was declared Patroness of the “Velvet Revolution,” by Vaclav Havlow, dissident playwright, and former political prisoner, now President-elect of a new and kinder Bohemia.

Saint Agnes of Prague was blessed with many incarnations, many lifetimes: that of a wealthy Princess Royal, that of a cloistered Sister of Penance, that of an exemplar in the Mardi Gras Grand Parade, that of Tarot Sister to all Women.  Here at the very fringes of all spiritual respectability, Sor Agnes has put into practice the direct advice of her mentor Saint Francis of Assisi, who instructed his family to preach first of all by example and only rarely to use words or arguments.

“Pax et Bonum,” was the motto that Brother Francis adopted for his new spiritual family.  “Peace and Good,” he proclaimed to the robbers who attacked him and threw him into the snow.  “Peace and Good,” he once told the Sultan of Egypt.  “Peace and Good, he wished the Wolf of Gubbio.

“Peace and Good, but no thank you,” Sor Agnes replied to the direct marriage proposal of the Holy Roman Emperor.  “Peach and Good” she had carved on the lintel above the entrance to her new convent in Prague.

“Peace and Good,” the Lady Penance called out to the crowd lining the Mardi Gras Parade route. and don’t forget, from dust we came and into dust we shall one day return.”

“Peace and Good, my dear,” La Papessa whispered to Madame Psyche in the midnight secrecy of her candlelit San Francisco boudoir.  “Peace and Good,” Saint Agnes advises us all today, “and don’t forget that from star dust we came, and into star dust we shall one day return.”


This summary is taken from The Franciscan in the Tarot.


Illustrations from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot deck reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford CT. 06902 USA. Copyright @ 1975 by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.  Further reproduction prohibited.




[1]The illustrations and the overall historical background for this article are taken from Stuart Kaplan’s bounteous,  Encyclopedia of Tarot, U. .S. Games Systems, 1990.

[2] Gertrude Moakley, The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti Family, New York Public Library, 1966.

[3] Moakley’s mistake was taken up by Barbara Newman in her book From Virile Woman to WomanChrist, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1995:  “The Popess, who wears the garb of the Umiliati, can be identified as a sister of that order.”

[4] Clare of Assisi. Ingrid Peterson, O.S.F., Franciscan Press, 1993.  Sister Agnes and Saint Clare exchanged correspondence during their lifetimes.

[5] Michael Dummett’s masterful volume, The Game of Tarot, U.S. Games Systerm, 1980.



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