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Visconti - PapessGertrude Moakley (The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo, 1966) introduced the Tarot world to a possible original source of the Papess card: Maifreda (or Manfreda) Visconti da Pirovano was to be declared Pope in Milan on Easter 1300 in a new age of the Holy Spirit. Instead, Maifreda and others in the sect were, that year, burned at the stake, along with the disinterred body of Guglielma, who had inspired this new movement. Could Maifreda be depicted on the Tarot Popess card?

Maifreda was an Abbess in the Umiliati Order and first cousin to Matteo Visconti, the Ghibelline (anti-pope) ruler of Milan. Maifreda believed the Holy Spirit had manifested on earth in the form of Guglielma (d. 1281), a middle-aged woman with a grown son who claimed to be a daughter of Premysl Otakar,King of Bohemia, and, who on arriving in Milan in 1260, donned a “simple brown habit” and lived the life of a saint. To the Guglielmites, her arrival fulfilled a prophecy of St. Joachim de Fiore that a new age of the Holy Spirit would begin in 1260, “heralding the inauguration of an ecclesia spiritualis in which grace, spiritual knowledge and contemplative gifts would be diffused to all.” Although she vehemently denied it, “rumors of divinity already swirled around Guglielma during her lifetime.” And, “Her words about ‘the body of the Holy Spirit,’ together with her mysterious royal origins, Pentecostal birth, imputed healings and stigmata, coalesced to create a more-than-human mystique in the minds of her friends.” Immediately after her death dozens of portraits were painted and chapels were dedicated to Santa Guglielma. (Visconti-Sforza card on the right – her cross at top left is hard to see.)

Giotto FidesBarbara Newman (aka Mona Alice Jean Newman) presented the most complete account in English of the Guglielmites in her From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature, but it is in her more recent paper, “The Heretic Saint: Guglielma of Bohemia, Milan and Brunate,” that we learn important details that make an attribution to Maifreda as Papess much stronger than previously thought (all quotes and information not otherwise attributed are from this article).

Many tarot scholars since Moakley have doubted Maifreda as source, nor do they give much credence to an older assumption that the card depicted Pope Joan (see article by Ross Caldwell). Instead, modern thinking proposes that it was always an allegorical image of Fides (Faith—see Giotto image to right), Sapientia (Wisdom), Ecclesia (Holy Mother Church) or the Papacy itself. Here’s an image from the Vatican itself:

papacy statue st peters (2)

Alternately, she could be Isis (see below with Hermes Trismegistus & Moses by Pinturicchio in the Vatican), the Blessed Virgin Mary or a priestess of Venus (below) —see especially Bob O’Neill’s “Iconology of the Early Papess Cards” and Andrea Vitali’s essay on “The High Priestess.” Even Paul Huson in Mystical Origins of the Tarot finds it difficult to believe the Visconti family would memorialize a family member burned at the stake as a heretic.Isis & Hermes Pinturicchio 1494

BVMPriestess of Venus

Certainly “Faith” and “Holy Mother Church” may be referenced in the Tarot image, but they were probably of a more heretical sort than the orthodox church has ever sanctioned. Andrea Vitali recounts a summary of the trial of Guglielma and her followers in which we find:

Papess028“As Christ was true God and true Man, in the same manner, she [Guglielma] claimed herself 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.” [Tying her story in with the final cards of Judgment and the World, we find,] “She too claimed she would arise 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.”

O’Neill objects that “beyond the deck specifically produced for the Visconti about 1450, the local Milanese phenomenon of Guglielmites is unlikely to be the source for the image on earlier decks, for example, the 1442 deck mentioned in an inventory of the Este estate in Ferrara.” But, as Newman’s paper points out, Matteo Visconti’s son, Galeazzo, married the Duke of Ferrara’s sister in 1300 and lived there from 1302-1310, so Ferrara had its own early connection to this saint. Furthermore, Guglielma’s story and veneration were popularized in Ferrara by 1425 through a hagiography (saint’s life) by Antonio Bonfadini, and in Florence through a popular late-15th century religious play by Antonia Pulci—although they garbled her history. (15th century deck on the right is known as the Fournier/Lombardy II.)

Matteo Visconti (first Duke of Milan and first cousin to Maifreda) had as an advisor his good friend, Cary-PapessFrancesco da Garbagnate—an ardent devotee of Guglielma. Matteo was at the center of his own long battle with the Church, having expelled the Papal Inquisitors in 1311, and being himself excommunicated in 1317, tried for sorcery and heresy in 1321, and having Milan placed under interdict in 1322. Matteo’s grandmother and uncle (archbishop of Milan) had earlier been named heretics. (Pope/Papess? card, left, is from the “Cary Sheet” found at the Sforza Castle, Milan.)

From Newman’s article, we learn that Maifreda’s convent was in Biassono, but she fails to note that Biassono is only five miles from the small town of Concorezzo that in 1299 was home to 1,500 Cathars. (I’ve since been told that this source is wrong and that most of the Concorezzo Cathars were burned as heretics or driven out by 1230). After the Albigensian crusade many small towns around Milan became refugee outposts of this faith, of which Concorezzo was a center, and may have inspired the order of nuns who called themselves the “humble” (umiliati)—[correction: the Cathar influence on other groups is not known.] Guglielma-Brunate close

The most compelling bit of data making the attribution of the Papess card almost certain is that between 1440 and 1460 Bianca Maria Visconti, wife of Francesco Sforza and duchess of Milan, frequently visited Maddalena Albrizzi, Abbess of monasteries in Como and Brunate, and gave aid and gifts to the Order. (Brunate is just north of Milan with Biassono between them). Even the stones for the Como monastery were donated by Francesco Sforza. The Visconti-Sforza deck (first picture in post) was probably commissioned by or for Bianca Maria. Around 1450 (the same period as the deck) a cycle of frescos were painted in the Church of San Andrea at Brunate that recorded the story of Guglielma:

“How she left the house of her husband, came to Brunate, and lived a solitary life here, wearing a hairshirt and ordinary dress . . . in the company of a crucifix and an image of Our Lady.”

Only one of these frescos, ornately framed, remains today near the original chapel that had been dedicated to Saint Guglielma (see above). It depicts Guglielma with two figures kneeling before her. She appears to be giving a special blessing to a nun. Newman identifies the two as Maifreda and Andrea Saramita (he was the main promulgator of her divinity as the Holy Spirit). Others, more convincingly, claim them as Maddalena Albrizzi (founder of the monastery and candidate for sainthood) and her cousin Pietro Albrici who renovated the church. Even as late as the nineteenth century, Sir Richard Burton, author of The Arabian Nights, noted that “Santa Guglielma, worshipped at Brunate, works many miracles, chiefly healing aches of head.”

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.

Popess as Babylon (1)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? Likewise, would it have been possible for a church reformer of the time, familiar with Maifreda and Pope Joan, to have not seen this card as an allegory of Heresy instead of Faith? For instance, a monk wrote in Sermones de Ludo Cum Aliis (c. 1450-1480) about La Papessa, “O wretched, it is what the Christian Faith denies.”

st_clare (1)I’d be remiss to not mention the very real possibility that the Popess represented St. Clare of the Poor Clares, the female branch of the Franciscans (right).

Or, perhaps she was simply the Church in contradistinction to the State as seen below in which a Popess and Empress represent each of these.

Popess-Empress2 (1)

Later Swiss, Germans and Belgians de-sacralized the deck, finding both Pope and Papess objectionable and substituting for them cards like Jupiter & Juno, Bacchus & the Spanish Captain, or the Moors. The Papess, it seems, has always been a mysterious and disturbing force, spreading anxiety instead of the calm assurance one might expect from Faith.

Acknowledgements: Huck Meyer pointed out this picture and Newman’s article at Aeclectic’s tarotforum last year – see discussion. I was then reminded of this material through reading Helen Farley’s fascinating book, A Cultural History of Tarot: From Entertainment to Esotericism. Check out Ross Caldwell’s webpage on the Papessa and Alain Bougearel’s post on Catharism and other heresies of the period here.

Tarosophist1-4The Tarosophist International: The Magazine of Tarosophy is a new journal put out by Tarot Professionals. The Special Annual Edition features the Thoth DeckIssue Four (1:4). It’s available in hardback and consists of 146 fully illustrated pages with articles by Rachel Pollack, Lon Milo DuQuette, Mary K. Greer, Richard Kaczynski, K. Frank Jensen, Marcus Katz. A must-have for anyone (beginner or expert) who wants to know more about the Thoth deck, Read the rest of this entry »

Greater Trumps pbI am reprinting here a long review by Paul Nagy of the greatest tarot novel of all time, Charles Williams’s The Greater Trumps (1932)—with contributions from Nigel Jackson’s Amazon review (marked in blue). Paul has been reading tarot for over 40 years, is one of the active members of the Raleigh-Durham Tarot Meetup Group, offers tarot teleclasses, and leads a discussion series on the book Meditations on the Tarot. Paul’s introduction to some of the symbolism in this book should make it far more accessible and intriguing to modern readers. Nigel Jackson is the creator of Medieval Enchantment: The Nigel Jackson Tarot and The Rumi Tarot. Paul wishes to also acknowledge the insights of Glen Cavaliero and Michael Huggins whose reviews on contributed to initial drafts of this piece.

Charles Williams (1886-1945) was a novelist, poet, theologian, and member of Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. He wrote seven occult novels—among the best ever written. Read about Charles Williams later in this post. At the very end you will find a list and description of the Trumps as modified by Williams. Now, here’s Paul Nagy:


Williams’ use of symbolism is near its peak in The Greater Trumps. It is a classic occult mystery play where all the forces of truth and justice are very conventionally established as staid British institutions set against anarchistic gypsy intrigue and in the mysterious figures of the tarot Trumps. The trumps motivate and embody the characters, set the action and redeem the antagonists by being themselves neutral leaves from the tree of knowledge of good and evil that compete for their control.

The “Greater Trumps” are the original set of Tarot, the ur-deck of hyper powerful cards, bequeathed to a minor English civil servant, Lothair Coningsby (a rather dim and pompous fellow), by a deceased distant relative. Lothair’s daughter, the spritely Nancy is engaged to a young man, Henry Lee, whose heritage is Romany. In considering what to do with these very rare, old set of Tarot cards, Lothair Coningsby intends to turn them over to a museum upon his own death. The Lee family has something else in mind. Read the rest of this entry »

Charles San introduced the 1973 Causeway Books edition of Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot with an  essay, “How to Read the Cards,” in which he recommended this Major Arcana-only spread. It features an interesting way of selecting the cards and, when I first tried it, the cards themselves suggested a way to give the reading additional definition and depth. Here is the spread with my own modifications. (San did not state where to place each card except that they circle around the Significator.)

  1. Shuffle the Major Arcana and deal out six cards face down on top of each other. Turn the seventh card face up and place it in the middle of the reading area. This is the Significator and represents a starting point for the reading. Return the other six to the bottom of the deck.
  2. Deal two cards face down and turn one card up, placing this third card at the 10 o’clock position (relative to the Significator). Do this seven times placing every third card in a counterclockwise circle around the Significator [this order is added by me as a result of the example spread that follows]. You will end up with seven cards circling the card drawn in step 1.
  3. Optional: if unsatisfied that these cards suffice, deal three more cards from the remaining thirteen, taking the third, tenth and thirteen cards, and place them above the circle.

San says you are to build a vision of the “present place in the ebb and flow of one’s life,” as “the individual cards and the combining of them provides one with the reading.” You can read this spread for yourself or one friend, but if three people are present then “the reading that results concerns all three as part of the society in which they live and work.”

Here is my spread using the Golden Dawn / Whare Ra Majors: Read the rest of this entry »

I experienced a breakthrough regarding tarot when I realized that all the Major Arcana cards are operating somewhere within me at all times. I discovered this from doing a variety of twenty-two card spreads that show where each energy or archetype is operating at the moment. Of course some cards are emphasized or highlighted around particular issues. These are the ones that show up in smaller spreads saying: “Look at me. I’m what’s most important right now regarding your question.” It’s kind of like they’re doing a jig or vibrating more than the others, and thrusting themselves to the front to get your attention. Meanwhile, the others are in the background, quietly doing their own thing or maintaining the status quo.

Sometimes it’s worth seeing the whole picture to understand how each energy or archetype plays its role in relation to the others. There are several ways to do this. Read the rest of this entry »

Some of you may know of the twenty-year long study of the Temple of Luxor by the Egyptologist René Schwaller de Lubicz (see bio). Before that Schwaller was a Theosophist, esotericist and alchemist who worked for many years with Fulcanelli. In the 1920s, René and his wife Isha moved to Switzerland and established Suhalia, a center for research into scientific and alchemical studies. While there he developed a motor that ran on vegetable oil.

According to the above internet biography by Gary Lachman:

“In 1936, on a visit to the tomb of Rameses IX in Alexandria, Schwaller had a kind of revelation. A picture represented the pharaoh as a right-angle triangle with the proportions 3:4:5, his upraised arm adding another unit. Schwaller thought it demonstrated the Pythagorean theorem, centuries before Pythagoras was born. From the picture it was clear to him that the knowledge of the medieval masons had its roots in ancient Egypt. For the next fifteen years, until 1951, Schwaller de Lubicz remained in Egypt, investigating the evidence for what he believed was an ancient system of psychological, cosmological, and spiritual knowledge.”

Although I’ve read several books by Schwaller I never knew that he had created his own tarot deck until sent these cards by Christian Dumolard (who documented the Château des Avenières Tarot mosaics of Assan Dina). Information on Schwaller’s tarot interests can be found in Schwaller de Lubicz by H. Dossier and Emmanuel Dufour-Kowalski. You may want to compare the Schwaller de Lubicz Tarot with that of Falconnier and Wegener (see History of Egyptian Tarot Decks). He was obviously considering some notable differences. Enjoy.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Tarot is a Mirror of the Soul.” Certainly any reading can be examined from this perspective, giving you an ever-changing kalidescopic view of the self and your concerns. Here, though, is a fun way to make the Major Arcana your own. This personal process (it’s not a spread as you’d normally think of it) provides a way to view a deep reflection of your Soul-Self that probably won’t change much until (or unless) you do.

Take out your favorite Major Arcana deck—the one that speaks most expressively to you. Arrange the Major Arcana in order from the card you like and admire the most to the one you find the scariest and most fearful. Take one card which fits the least into your personal sequence and put it aside.

Next, keeping the cards in the order you’ve just determined, lay your Major Arcana out in three rows of seven cards as shown in the diagram below. Put the one card that “fits least” in the single position at the top.

Now comes the fun part. Examine each three-card column such that the top card in a column indicates your Ideals, the bottom card is its Shadow, and the middle card Mediates between these two. The mediating card can be seen as that which makes it possible for the Ideal and Shadow to relate to each other.

For instance, if you have the Sun as your Ideal and the Tower as its Shadow with Justice mediating, then Justice helps each to see that the other is necessary for a just balance. On the other hand, if Temperance is the Ideal and Death its Shadow, and the Wheel of Fortune mediates, then the Wheel reminds you that Temperance’s mixture of elements has to include the season of Death as part of its cycle.

Look at these cards in terms of how you handle and respond to situations. When you are striving for an Ideal, how can you integrate its Shadow? When you are annoyed or afraid, how can you call on your positive Ideal? Use the mediating card as a practical key to this integrative process.

How does the card you placed at the very top, the one that “didn’t fit,” seem to comment on all the others or, perhaps, lend an overall theme to the whole?

Do it once, save the results somewhere where you will “stumble” upon them in 6 months or a year. Re-order the Major Arcana of the same deck again (from the ones you like most to the ones you find most scary and disturbing) and see where your sequence has stayed the same as last time and where it’s changed.

Let me know how this works for you.

Here’s a little walk down memory lane. These cards are from London – late 1970 or early ’71, printed in a magazine called Gear of London and designed by Barry Josey. Obviously they are based on the works of Aubrey Beardsley. If anyone has any more information on this deck or the magazine, please let me know.

Update: I received an email from the artist Barry Josey (love the internet!). Finding that his art could not support him, he went back to his profession as an architect and also left the tarot behind, but hopes to return to art when he retires. Here he explains how the deck came about:

“Initially, the cards were set out as a poster style calendar, and then they were intended to be printed as packs.  At the time, I knew nothing of Tarot, but had to immerse myself albeit briefly to get a starting point for the drawings.  Beardsley was ‘in’ at the time and because I could approximate the style, Gear asked me to prepare the cards.  The drawings were black and white only, and it had been my intention that they be printed on a single buff or similar pastel colour.  Gear disagreed and printed them in the rather garish primary colours you see before you.”

Here’s another example of the art of Barry Josey—an illustration for a play by Jean Genet.


The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn introduced what I consider the most extensive and elegant set of correspondences among the tarot and other magical systems. Here is a permutation I hadn’t seen before. It’s from The Magical Writings of Ithell Colquhoun edited by Steve Nichols. Colquhoun was an artist, magician and the biographer of MacGregor Mathers (Sword of Wisdom-o.p.). Magical Writings contains over a hundred pages of text on the Major Arcana (material on the last five cards added by Steve Nichols), plus reproductions of pages from Colquhoun’s tarot notebooks. It’s a treasure-trove for the discerning reader.

THE PLANETARY TRIPLICITIES – based on correspondences to the planets and the signs they rule.

MERCURY: Magus, Lovers, Hermit (Mercury, Gemini, Virgo)

MOON: Priestess, Chariot, Hanged Man (Moon, Cancer, Elemental Water)

VENUS: Empress, Hierophant, Justice (Venus, Taurus, Libra)

SUN: Sun, Strength, Judgment (Sun, Leo, Elemental Fire)

MARS: Tower, Emperor, Death (Mars, Aries, Scorpio)

JUPITER: Wheel, Temperance, Moon (Jupiter, Sagittarius, Pisces)

SATURN: World, Devil, Star (Saturn, Capricorn, Aquarius)

(Fool = Elemental Air)

These groupings can be very handy in a reading where the occurrence of two or three cards from one of the triplicities indicates a strong influence by that planetary energy. Mythically, it suggests the presence of that God/dess messing around in one’s life.

I haven’t looked at much recent tarot poetry, but the web turns out to be a wonderful place to explore it. Here’s a few sites that offer something different or intriguing:

At’s poetry site you’ll find Tarot Poems by Mike Timonin, with Art by Cindy Duhe, presented in a very tarot-appropriate way. Click on the rapidly changing tarot card images and you’ll be taken to a poem determined by the shuffle. Want another card and poem? Shuffle the deck again.

You’ll also find a poem by Michael Gerald Sheehan for every card at Moon Path Tarot.

Tarot Poems by Donna Kerr from her book of poetry Between the Sword and the Heart.

Tarot Poetry by Rachel Pollack.

Here is one of the oldest tarot poems in existence: a sonnet by Teofilo Folengo, appearing in his 1527 work Caos del Triperiuno written under the pseudonym Merlini Cocai. The work includes a series of poems representing the individual fortunes of various people as revealed by cards dealt them. The summary sonnet below mentions each of the 22 Trump cards, which I’ve referenced by their number to the right of the line on which they appear. It helps to understand that Death is female in Italian, la morte, and Love (Cupid) is male. Love claims that although Death rules the physical body, Love never dies and therefore death is but a sham.

Love, under whose Empire many deeds (6, 4)
go without Time and without Fortune, (9, 10)
saw Death, ugly and dark, on a Chariot, (13, 7)
going among the people it took away from the World. (21)
She asked: “No Pope nor Papesse was ever won (5, 2)
by you. Do you call this Justice?” (8 )
He answered: “He who made the Sun and the Moon (19, 18 )
defended them from my Strength. (11)
“What a Fool I am,” said Love, “my Fire, (0, 16)
that can appear as an Angel or as a Devil (20, 15)
can be Tempered by some others who live under my Star. (14, 17)
You are the Empress[Ruler] of bodies. But you cannot kill hearts, (3)
you only Suspend them. You have a name of high Fame, (12)
but you are nothing but a Trickster.” (1)

Translated by Marco Ponzi (Dr. Arcanus) with help from Ross Caldwell, members of Aeclectic Tarot’s TarotForum, and by comparisons with the translation found in Stuart Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol II, p. 8-9 (read the discussion here). The first picture is from a 1485 Triumph of Death fresco on the wall of a Confraternity Chapel in Clusone, Italy. It depicts Death as an Empress before whom all others bow. The second picture is from Savonarola’s Sermon on the Art of Dying Well, published circa 1500.

See the translation of one of Folengo’s fortune-telling sonnets at taropedia – here.

Added: Check out the poetic concept of rhyme applied to visual aspects of the tarot in Enrique Enriquez’s article on “Eye Rhyme.”


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Mary K. Greer has made tarot her life work. Check here for reports of goings-on in the world of tarot and cartomancy, articles on the history and practice of tarot, and materials on other cartomancy decks. Sorry, I no longer write reviews. Contact me HERE.

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