When Francesco Sforza married Bianca Maria Visconti, heiress to the Duke of Milan, in 1441, his family's fortune was made. Not long after their wedding, the couple celebrated by commissioning a deck of hand-painted playing cards, bearing the emblems of both families, from the bride's favorite artist. Such was the origin of the famed Visconti tarots, the earliest to correspond card for card with the modern tarot pack.
It is only fitting that these original tarots, treasured for centuries as a repository of esoteric lore, should commemorate an even more esoteric moment in the history of Christianity. Among the trionfi or Greater Trumps is a card known in modern lore as the High Priestess but in the Visconti deck as la Papessa, "the Popess." This lady is dressed in a nun's habit with a rope belt, white veil, and the triple tiara of the papacy; in her right hand she holds a scepter and in her left a book (Figure 1). Viewers might easily mistake her for Pope Joan of misogynist legend, but the tarot sleuth Gertrude Moakley has found a more likely model.1 The Popess, who wears the garb of the Umiliati, can be identified as a sister of that order: Maifreda da Pirovano, cousin of the bride's ancestor Matteo Visconti. Sister Maifreda was actually granted the title of pope, vicar of the Holy Spirit upon earth, by a small heretical sect. After assuming a range of priestly duties over a period of twenty years, she celebrated solemn mass on Easter 1300, the year of the Jubilee. The mass was necessarily private, but Maifreda was to repeat the ceremony at Santa Maria Maggiore on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit-- incarnate in a woman named Guglielma--would rise from the dead and confer blessings on her people. Instead of Guglielma, however, a troupe of inquisitors appeared, following up on prior investigations of 1284 and 1296. By September la Papessa and at least two of her congregation were dead at the stake.
The lengthy though incomplete records of the Guglielmites' trial were published as early as 1899,2 and even earlier, H. C. Lea had devoted a chapter to them in his monumental history of the inquisition.3 But until recently the sect has garnered little attention because it seemed so minor.