La Papessa Discovered as a Virtue

One of the amazing things about the exhibit Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. was the astonishing number of pieces that had never before been seen in the United States. That, in my view, is an astounding feat and triumph for the curators of the show and for the museum.


One such piece visiting United States soil for the first time is this painting by Italian painter Nicoló Barabino (1832-1891).

Faith with Representation of the Arts (ca. 1885)

Faith with Representation of the Arts (ca. 1885) by Nicoló Barabino

If you are a tarot enthusiast, this image might look familiar to you…and it should. Barabino was reproducing a technique that a lot of artist from his artistic era were doing at the time—he personified the moral/theological virtues in the form of a female figure. In this case, as the museum catalogue raissoné explains, Barabino conceptualized the Virgin Mary as the theological virtue of Faith. Dressed in her characteristic blue robe, she holds the Book of Wisdom or Scripture. Rather than two pillars and a screen, Mary sits in a contrived doorway, symbolizing an entranceway, and the presumed method of admittance is her personification itself—faith—through the instruction book that she holds. Above her head is a Latin inscription that translates as “Help of Christians.” She is the epitome of the High Priestess (also known as La Papessa), and the painting reinforces the academic conjecture that La Papessa is representative of the Church or the virtue of Faith, and not, as many presume, some cross-dressing, urban-legend-anecdote of an [supposed] historical Pope Joan.


It would be easy to champion a Pope Joan as some sort of contemporary patron saint of gender independence and solidarity with gender-nonconformity. I am all for that, let it be known. However, there is already quite a bit of competition in the field for that particular saintly patron office. (Take note of Joan of Arc, and a host of other saints already approved by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.) I fear, as well, that Pope Joan really goes the same wayward path as St. Christopher, who might teach us, if anything, that the power and vigilance of myth and popularity of belief can literally have a legendary effect on one’s longevity, influence, and fame. St. Christopher rightfully deserves a Roman triumphal parade of his own!


Not withholding the veneration of Pope Joan, historical evidence—as exemplified in Barabino’s painting—makes a stronger case for the Papessa card in the tarot as representative of the virtue of Faith and the Church herself. St. Peter’s Basilica of Vatican City—itself—contains several examples of the Church and Faith personified in female form, many of them staring down at the throngs of visitors every day.


Below is a gallery of several sample Papessa and High Priestess cards from several decks for you to compare against Barabino’s painting Faith with Representation of the Arts (ca. 1885), pictured above.

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Posted in Catholic Philosophy, Discovering Meaning in Imagery, Reading for Virtue, Tarot History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

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