Is the Visconti-Sforza Popess a Heretic?
A sister of the Umiliati Order in Milan, Maifreda da Pirovano, was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1300. Many historians believe this card from the Visconti-Sforza Tarot is her portrait. When the Duke and Duchess of Milan commissioned this golden Trionfi deck from their favorite artist, Bonifacio Bembo, shortly after 1450, they commemorated family history in some of the cards. Maifreda may have been related to the duchess; and her heresy involved claiming to be the equal of the Pope, so the connection seems obvious. But if you were the duchess of Milan, with a reputation based on good works and piety, would you advertise a heretic in the family? Let’s look at some other, more respectable, possibilities for this card.
The story of the heretic Maifreda begins with Guglielma, a charismatic holy woman who appeared in Milan in the 1260s accompanied by a young son. Everyone assumed she was a widow, but nothing seems to have actually been known about her family or her place of origin. She lived in various neighborhoods around Milan, giving comfort and spiritual advice to troubled people who revered her for her kindness and her exemplary life. Guglielma had a charismatic personality and quickly developed a reputation for saintliness. During her lifetime, devotees began identifying her with the Holy Spirit, which she countered by saying she was obviously flesh and bone since she arrived in Milan with a child. Guglielma eventually moved to the Cistercian monastery of Chiaravalle outside Milan. After her death in 1282, her tomb became a pilgrimage site associated with miracles and visions. A cult quickly formed that was similar to many mainstream societies and confraternities that celebrated their faith with annual banquets, processions, singing and devotional chants. Some of Milan’s most important families were drawn into the movement, and for nearly twenty years it operated with no hint of heresy.
A sister of the Umiliati Order, Maifreda da Pirovano, and a priest, Andrea Saramita, both living in a Umiliati double house in the Biassono district of Milan, promoted the idea that Guglielma was the incarnation of a feminine Holy Spirit who would renew the Church and encourage women to take a central role. They whipped up a frenzy of religious enthusiasm among members of the Order and eventually attracted unwelcome attention from the Inquisition.
The Umiliati Order was founded in the 1100s as an order of laymen living in voluntary poverty and engaged in the textile trades. By the early 1200s they were organized into three levels: Those who were married and lived in their own homes but subscribed to the values of the order; those who took a vow of chastity and lived in communal houses of both men and women loosely organized around the Benedictine rule; and the few who did pastoral work and were associated with a church.
In 1178, the Umiliati purchased land in Biassono where they built a house that became notorious as the center of the Guglielma cult. The Umiliati eventually established several houses in Lombardy: Monza, Pavia, Como, Lodi, Bergamo, Cremona and others, with leadership rotating among the houses.
The papacy seems to have been chronically uneasy about lay orders, and throughout the 1200s pressured them to organize more like traditional monasteries. Then in the 1300s, the Umiliati became increasingly politicized. The Visconti meddled in the Umiliati’s affairs, and for decades a Visconti served as the Director General of the Order. In the mid-1500s the Umiliati ran into trouble with the Inquisition, all their buildings were seized, and except for a few nunneries, the Order ceased to exist.
Everything we know about Guglielma and her cult comes from details the Umiliati Maifreda and Saramita fed to the Inquisition while being questioned and most likely tortured. In the 1600s, a Milanese scholar examined the Inquisition’s trial records and summarized the Guglielmites beliefs in fourteen points. These beliefs echoed the life of Christ and traditional Church doctrine in feminine terms. Guglielma was both human and divine and was the embodiment of the Holy Spirit in feminine form, just as Christ was both human and divine in the form of a man. Like Christ, Guglielma would suffer and die as a human; but as the Holy Spirit she would be resurrected and appear to her disciples in tongues of flame. Just as Christ entrusted Peter to be the custodian of his Church, so Guglielma named Maifreda as her earthly representative who was entitled to say Mass and wield the authority of a Pope.
There’s no evidence that Guglielma herself encouraged any of this during her lifetime. Maifreda and Saramita either went way over the top in their enthusiasm, or the rack and thumb screws encouraged them to feed the inquisitors what they wanted to hear. In any case, the Inquisition accumulated more than enough evidence to convict Guglielma’s followers of heresy.
In 1300, several people associated with Guglielma’s cult were burnt at the stake, including Saramita and Maifreda. Guglielma’s body was disinterred and burnt as well. Subsequently, urban legends proliferated conflating Guglielma’s life story with Pope Joan’s; and telling how Guglielma presided over orgies. But a saintly Guglielma was venerated at a parish church in Brunate, north of Milan near Como.
Maifreda and Saramita exaggerated Guglielma’s importance in other ways, perhaps hoping it would go easier for them if Guglielma had a distinguished background. Saramita stated for the record that Guglielma was the daughter of King Ottakar and Queen Constance of Bohemia. He claimed to have gone to Prague himself to verify this. A daughter had been born to the monarchs around the year 1210 named Vilemina, which could possibly be translated into Italian as Guglielma. She would have been in her 50s when she arrived in Milan in the 1260s. But there is no record of the king’s daughter going missing; and it seems very unlikely that the daughter of a powerful king would be able to slip away and pose as an ordinary woman.
A decade after Maifreda was burnt, Church authorities investigated the Lord of Milan, Matteo Visconti, for heresy. Since Maifreda was related to Matteo through his mother’s family, it’s quite possible Matteo intervened in an attempt to save her life and may even have been involved in Maifreda’s heresy.
In 1966, Gertrude Moakley became the first modern researcher to connect the Popess Tarot card with the heretic Sister Maifreda. In her groundbreaking book, she said the Visconti-Sforza Popess is dressed in the habit of the Umiliati order, and therefore must be Maifreda. Moakley’s theory has one huge hole: The Visconti-Sforza Popess is not dressed in Umiliati robes. The illustrations in this article showing Umiliati going about their daily tasks are contemporary to Maifreda. Their appearance is nothing like the Visconti-Sforza Popess. The Umiliati habit consisted of a white robe and scapular over a gray tunic, and a veil that was usually white but in some houses was black.
The Visconti-Sforza Popess is obviously dressed in the Franciscan habit of the Poor Clares. In Guglielma’s day, the habit was either gray or a variable shade of medium brown. A white cowl covered the neck and shoulders, sandals were worn instead of shoes, and the robe was tied with a white cord tied in a distinctive knot. Neither Guglielma nor Maifreda had any direct association with the Poor Clares. So why is a Poor Clare on this Tarot card?
Vilemina, the daughter of the Bohemian monarch who was presumed to be Guglielma, had a younger sister, Agnes, who established an order of Poor Clares in Prague with the help of Saint Clare of Assisi. Agnes was first proposed for sainthood in 1328, and was canonized as Saint Agnes of Prague in 1989. Her placement in the trumps sequence is very appropriate since her fate was in the hands of both the Emperor and Pope. Agnes’s parents tried pressuring her into an arranged marriage with the Holy Roman Emperor. In desperation, Agnes appealed to the Pope to intervene so she could pursue her religious vocation.
Until recently, it was assumed that Guglielma of Milan and Saint Agnes of Prague were sisters. Could the Visconti-Sforza card portray Guglielma’s supposed sister Agnes? The Duchess of Milan was likely aware of the cult of Guglielma, which still thrived in the vicinity of Milan in the 15th century. Her family had been supporters of the Umiliati for many years, and several Visconti men had served as directors of the order. Perhaps the Tarot card was the duchess’s way of referencing Guglielma and her cult while avoiding anything heretical. On the other hand, the duchess had a reputation for piety and had many friends in the Church, so this card may depict a Poor Clare spiritual advisor or friend and have nothing to do with the cult of Guglielma.
It seems the Visconti-Sforza Popess will remain an enigma and continue to guard her secrets until new evidence comes to light.
Special thanks to Iolon at TarotWheel for supplying images and for helpful input on the text.
The Golden Tarot: The Visconti-Sforza Deck. Mary Packard. Race Point Publishing, 2013.
Illustration from Historia Ordinis Humiliatorum. Milan, 1431. Collection of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana.
Members of the Umiliati Order carding and spinning wool, accessed at:
Saint Clare and the Poor Clares. And Saint Agnes of Prague: numerous unidentified examples online.
I Tarocchi Visconti Sforza. Milan c.1450. Reproduced by Il Meneghello, Milan, 2002. Collection of Pierpont Morgan LiBrary, New York City.
Moakley, Gertrude. The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo. The New York Public Library, 1966. Pages 72-73.
Muraro, Luisa. Guglielma e Maifreda: Storia di un’eresia femminista. Libreria delle donne, e-book, 2015