Andrea Vitali's Historical Essays on the Tarot

The Popess Maifreda

A Study concerning the Popess of the 15th Century Visconti Tarot


by Marcos Mendez Filesi

Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, March 2013

Two strange Popesses

Of the Popess in the 15th century only two hand-painted cards are extant. One belongs to the Pierpont Morgan Library collection, and the other is part of a series of six cards, dated to the late fifteenth century, sold in 1974 by an antique shop in Milan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Vitoria-Gasteiz and incorporated into the Fournier collection. Of these six, two are Triumphs, the Popess and the Emperor, but, as noted by Michael Dummett, it is likely that the Popess card belongs to a different pattern from the others, since it is smaller and has a black back instead of red.

                     papessa 2                       Papessa 1                 

                         Left: Popess of the Pierpont Morgan Tarot - Right: Popess of the Fournier collection

                                         (© courtesy of Bibat Arkeologia Museo Fournier Playing Card)

In both these cards, the depiction of the Popess is far from the canonical one usually considered. The Pierpont Popess bears three characteristic papal insignia: the tiara, the staff surmounted by a cross, and the Bible. However, her clothing has nothing to do with the Pope's own attire, being that of a nun. It consists of a large brown tunic, accompanied by a white veil that covers the hair and the sides of the face. Under her breast she wears a cord with three knots visible, while the two ends of the cord are hidden by the mantle. According to legend, this symbolic cord, a characteristic element of the Franciscans, comes from Francis of Assisi. For the sake of conforming, the monks used a leather belt, but Francis decided to change it to this cord, much more humble and simple. Originally, it had three knots symbolizing the three vows of the Order: obedience, poverty and chastity.


The Popess of the Fournier collection is very similar, but the robe is black and the mantle of a dark brown color. The ends of the pastoral cross are augmented, allowing one to better distinguish its shape. Kaplan argues that it is a Maltese cross, but it is more of a Greek cross. In any case, this detail is not significant because it seems to follow the taste of the artist who painted it. The book is not completely black, but has a red border that seems to blend in with the color of the mantle. On the right, below the clothing, is a curious red spot that Ross Caldwell associated with an ornament of footwear designed to highlight her ecclesiastical dignity.



In her pioneering essay on the Tarot, The tarot cards painted by Bonifacio Bembo, Gertrude Moakley connected the Popess of the Pierpont Morgan to a distant ancestor of Filippo Maria Visconti, a nun named Maifreda Visconti Pirovano, who was appointed Popess of a heretical sect in Lombardy known as the "Guglielmites". The best source of documentation at our disposal where it is possible to learn about the Guglielmites is in the proceedings of the trial initiated against them by the Inquisition in 1300. In essence, this group argued that God had once again sent another child on the earth, but on this occasion it was a woman. She herself was named Guglielma of Bohemia, affirming that her birth was announced to her alleged mother, Queen Constance of Bohemia, by the archangel Raphael, who had explained that her mission on earth was to save the Jews, the Saracens and the false Christians, in the same way that Christ had saved the true Christians.


Accompanied by her son, Guglielma arrived in Milan in 1262, where she was welcomed by the monks of the Cistercian Abbey of Santa Maria de Clairvaux. Thanks to her skills as a healer and her charisma, there was built around her a more or less clandestine movement supported by the monks of Clairvaux, a movement that proved very attractive to some Lombard women for its feminist connotations. Her two most fervent supporters were Andrea Saramita, a layman attached to the abbey, and Maifreda Pirovano, a cousin of Matteo Visconti (lord of Milan between 1311 and 1322), who was named the Popess of the cult, as stated in a document of accusation in the proceedings of the inquisitors.


“(10.) That the nun Maifreda would be true popess and would have the full and true authority of the true pope; that she would be on earth the true vicar of the Holy Spirit, because just as the Holy Spirit in the form of a woman was in Guglielma, so Maifreda would be the vicar of Guglielma in the form of a woman; that the pope and the papacy and the Roman Church with its rites and authority and the curia of cardinals must cease, and that the nun Maifreda would have the aforementioned authority of the pope and the papacy of the Roman Church; that at one time also she would baptize the Jews, the Saracens and all the other nations that are out of the womb of the Roman Church and not yet baptized "


The Guglielmites thought she would be returned to Earth during the Feast of Pentecost in 1300, a period considered as a prelude to the Apocalypse. Among other rituals, they celebrated three holidays during the year: the first at Pentecost, the second on August 24, the day Guglielma died, and the third in October, the anniversary of the official burial of Guglielma at the abbey. For several years, her tomb was venerated and there was talk of miracles performed by her in regard to health.


"The same tomb then of Guglielma, the sect illuminated with burning candles and lamps; they then placed over it the hosts that are used by priests at Mass, as if by that contact they were sanctified and become powerful for expelling infirmity. Thus the sick with great reverence ate them, receiving them mainly from the hands of Maifreda, as the one in this ministry who seemed to be Guglielma’s vicar” (1).


We do not know with certainty how many people took part in the movement. In the proceedings of the inquisitors, thirty men and women are mentioned, but it is likely to have been many more, belonging mostly to the Umiliati, a religious order that spread in Lombardy over the course of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. The nerve center of the cult was the Abbey of Clairvaux, although we can not rule out that it spread to other religious sites connected to the Umiliati, such as the "convent" of Biassono, where Maifreda lived at first. During the trial, it was discovered that in some churches images of Guglielma had been displayed under the guise of Santa Caterina, as in Santa Eufemia and likewise Santa Maria Maggiore, both in Milan.


The Guglielmite movement was not very different from other groups of religious women at the time, generically called Beguines. These associations began to emerge in the twelfth century, especially in Flanders, France and southern Germany. As explained by Margaret Wade (2), the Beguines gathered in homes located close to hospitals, abbeys or leper-houses. They were of humble origin, because the monasteries were usually reserved for the richest women. They often established their own rules, even though they were officially designated by a priest or by spiritual leaders of other orders. Cases were not rare in which they were persecuted, mostly on charges of heresy.


In 1300, against a backdrop of growing tension between the Visconti and the Papacy, the Guglielmites fell into the hands of the Inquisition. After a severe interrogation, Maifreda the Popess, Andrea Saramita and other members of the movement were, in September 1300, burned alive. Next to them were burned the remains of Guglielma. Yet, as demonstrated by Barbara Newman (3), the cult somehow persisted in the fifteenth century, spread by a popular legend about "holy" Guglielma. It is a very watered down version, in which Maifreda is not mentioned, and Guglielma becomes a kind of Hungarian queen jealous of her chastity. The text from which the legend was born is the Life of St. Guglielma Queen of Hungary, written around 1425 by a Franciscan friar named Antonio Bonfadini (4).


In some places, the belief of the people about the sanctity of this Guglielma has lasted until today. This has happened at least in the small village of Brunate, in the north of Lombardy, where in the church of St. Andrea Apostolo is found the portrait of Guglielma giving a blessing to Maddalena Albrizzi, abbess in the fifteenth century of the Augustinian convent, and his cousin Piero Albrici, who paid for the making of the painting. In 1842, the pastor of St. Andrea wrote a letter in which he explained to the historian Michele Caffi that the person depicted in the fresco was Guglielma:


"There exists in Brunate a tradition that a lady from abroad, Guglielma by name, in times past came here to live for several years, forced to leave home by domestic misfortune, and that her husband, having received the news, came here to take her home. In this church is a picture of her in fresco (venerated by pious people who attend here in some months of the year), which seems to me from the year 1450 or so” (5).



           Saint Guglielma blesses Maddalena Albrizzi and her cousin Piero, Church of St. Andrea, Brunate

Newman identifies the two kneeling figures as Maifreda and Andrea Saramita, but, as noted by Ross Caldwell, it is more likely Maddalena Albrizzi, abbess of the convent of the Augustinians in the fifteenth century, as is well attested by her black robe. (Courtesy of © Ross Caldwell)


 Popess Maifreda?


The possibility that the Popesses of the Pierpont Morgan Library Tarot and the Fournier collection refer to Maifreda has fervent supporters, such as  Newman herself: "The Papessa of the Visconti-Sforza tarots is [...] Sister Maifreda da Pirovano, an attribution first made by Gertrude Moakley in 1966, well before modern historians had rediscovered the Guglielmites”. In her web blog, tarot historian Mary K. Greer is even more convinced:


“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?” (6).


However, to confirm this hypothesis three key issues must first be resolved. In the first place, are there iconographic details relating to Guglielma in the Pierpont and Fournier Popess? Second, could Bianca Maria Visconti have had such knowledge of Guglielma? Does Maifreda appear in the historical facts of 1300 or the legend of Bonfadini? And thirdly, has a document been found that shows Bianca’s interest in Maifreda?


They do not wear papal vestments, but the tunic and veil typical of nuns. This is important because Maifreda was a first a Umiliati nun and then a Guglielmite; but we must also consider the color of the habit. The main religious orders active in northern Italy in the second half of the fifteenth century were the Franciscans, whose robe was brown, the Dominicans, who wore a white tunic and a black hood, the Augustinians, with black robe, and the Umiliati dressed in white. According to the minutes of the Inquisition, the robe of the Guglielmites was "morello,” that is, dark, and that the aforementioned Guglielma wore habits of the color “marrone moreto." For the nuances of the sentence, we can assume that on this occasion the term "morello" refers to a very dark brown, almost black. On the basis of these colors, the habit of the Pierpont Popess seems inspired by the Franciscan habit, and also, if it was a little  darker, could be identified with the habits of the Guglielmites, as appears most evident in the case of the Fournier Popess.


The detail of the cord is very ambiguous. It is tempting to relate it to the famous Franciscan cord. In fact, the depictions of Clare of Assisi, founder of the Poor Clares, the female order of the Franciscans, show her with brown clothing and knotted cord. However, it is also true that a strange miracle occurred over three knots that appeared in the cord of a habit at a celebration of the Guglielmites:


“In this room in the presence of all the summoned people Sister Maifreda said that the lady St. Guglielma had ordained the sister Maifreda to say to all those present that she was the Holy Spirit, true God and true man, and that hence all the aforesaid there present would not have appeared in her presence [otherwise]. Added the aforementioned Sister Maifreda: "Let be for me what can be”. Allegranza also said to remember that the above mentioned lady Carabella in that house then sat on her own habit, and when she got up, she found that the belt or cord of her habit had made three bunches that had not been there: and there grew around them then marveling and whispering among them, and many from this same testimony believed it to be a great miracle”.


The fact that these proceedings appeared in Italy in the seventeenth century and not in the archives of the Inquisition of Milan is another great mystery. According to Newman, it could be due to the fact that Matteo Visconti, Maifreda’s cousin, took possession of the document, when years later he was accused of heresy:


“The likeliest explanation of the manuscript's disappearance, I believe, is that Matteo Visconti confiscated it from the Dominicans around 1317, when he ‘violently expelled from Milan four inquisitors of heretics called by the authority of the Lord Pope.’ If the document incriminated not only his cousin Maifreda, but also his son Galeazzo, his friend Francesco da Garbagnate, and several of his trusted counselors, he would have had good reason to do so. [...]


“Like all arguments from silence, this one remains on the level of speculation but seems to fit the evidence better than any alternative theory. For example, it would explain why the manuscript was eventually found in Pavia, for that is the place where the vast Visconti-Sforza library was housed before it was pillaged and dispersed in the sixteenth century, after the fall of the dynasty.82 My theory does raise a perplexing question, however: If Matteo Visconti saw fit to confiscate the trial record as soon as he had the opportunity, why did he not simply destroy it, rather than preserving a bowdlerized version? The answer, I suggest, is that in spite of the inquisition, the Visconti continued to cherish the memory of St. Guglielma and Sister Maifreda, and were determined to preserve a record of their religious movement in private hands where the knowledge could do no further harm.”


If correct it would mean that Bianca Maria was able personally to read the truth about her ancestor Maifreda; but about this one can not be sure until documents are discovered that inform us where exactly the documents in the fifteenth century were kept. Nor have we documentary evidence that Bianca was interested in Maifreda, although she might have been in Guglielma, at least in her watered-down version of the fifteenth century. Bianca intervened on several occasions in favor of Maddalena Albrizzi, Abbess at that time of the convent of S. Andrea, where the cult of Guglielma was. Thus Maddalena might have transmitted to Bianca her enthusiasm for Guglielma, as Newman says, even though there are no texts that confirm this conjecture.


A reasonable alternative, and simpler for explaining the peculiar iconography of the Pierpont Popess, from which that of the Fournier collection derived, is that Bonifacio Bembo was inspired by the iconography of Clare of Assisi and the Poor Clares, given that since 1429 there was a convent of this order to Cremona, the city beloved by Bianca Maria. In fact, just at the time of the design of this deck, the Poor Clares were held in high esteem by Caterina Vigri, also known as Caterina di Bologna (1413-1463). She was the daughter of a nobleman of Ferrara, and was educated at the Este court, where she became a lady in waiting to Margherita, daughter of Niccolò. In 1428 she entered the order of the Poor Clares, and in 1456 she was appointed abbess of the convent of the order in Bologna. She wrote several books, of which she herself was responsible for illustrations, and also devoted herself to painting. In addition, as noted by Rosanne Oakley-Browne, the iconography of the figures is consistent with the symbolic elements that the Clares wore on special occasions during the Renaissance in Northern Italy: a staff similar to that of the pope (Ferula) and a miter.


The conclusion is that we cannot conclude anything. Until new documents are found, the question remains open. There are not satisfactory reasons for saying that the Pierpont and Fournier Popesses are the Popess Maifreda, nor are there reasons sufficient to refute Moakley’s hypothesis.


                                       Santa Chiara

                                        Simone Martini, St. Clare and St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1322-1326)

To paint the Pierpont Morgan Popess, Bonifacio Bembo may have drawn on the iconography of the Poor Clares, characterized by a brown habit and cord tied around the waist.


- All quotations from the trial come from Pietro Tamburini, Storia Generale dell'Inquisizione (General History of the Inquisition), Volume 2, Milan, 1866. See in Google Books.
2 - Margaret Wade Labarge, A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life,  Beacon Press, Boston, and Hamish Hamilton Ltd., London, 1986. See in  Google Books.
3 - Barbara Newman, The heretic saint: Guglielma of Bohemia, Milan and Brunate, Church History, March, 2005, pp. 1-38. Displayed online. [Translator’s note: quotations from this source are taken directly from the original article in English].
4 - Antonio Bonfadini, Vita di S. Guglielma regina d'Ungheria (Life of St. Guglielma Queen of Hungary). We find no online edition.
5 - Michele Caffi, Dell'Abbazia di Chiaravalle in Lombardia (The Abbey of Clairvaux in Lombardy), Milan, 1842. See in Google Books.
6 - Mary K. Greer, personal blog. [Quotations from this source are taken directly from the original article in English.]  

On the author, a member of the Association Le Tarot, see  Marcos Mendez Filesi