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Fact or fiction? Easthampton artist Susan Montgomery ponders legend of Pope Joan (Video)

  • PHOTO BY JAMES GEHRT<br/>a Detail from Susan' Montgomery's "Pope Joanna," paper, thread, ink and wire
  • PHOTO BY JAMES GEHRT<br/>"Her Conviction," watercolor, graphite and phosphorescent paint on paper
  • PHOTO BY JAMES GEHRT<br/>"Pope Joanna," paper, thread, ink and wire
  • PHOTO BY  JAMES GEHRT<br/>"The Conversion of Pope Joan," paper, wire and thread

With some stories, what matters is not the factual accuracy, but how evocatively they echo in our experience and why they feel so intuitively true to life. For Susan Montgomery, the how and the why of narrative are more vital than historical fact alone. And in paintings and sculptures that loom larger than life size, she investigates the alluring, yet ultimately ambiguous story of Pope Joan, who may — or may not — have reigned for several years in the ninth century.

Montgomery, who has a studio in Easthampton, is fascinated by the legend of Pope Joan and has created a series of paintings, drawings and sculptures based on the story, which she has shown in solo exhibitions across the state.

According to a mixture of history and mystery, the woman who became Pope Joan initially disguised herself as a boy to gain access to education in a monastery. Intelligent, ambitious, and still in disguise, she rose through the ranks to be elected Pope John Angelicus in 855 C.E. All went well until she fell from her horse during a papal procession and revealed her double transgression: she was not only female, but also pregnant. As she gave birth, perhaps prematurely, outraged crowds dragged Joan to her death in the streets of Rome. The official line is logical denial: The pope is always a baptized male; therefore, any female pope would not be the pope. But mathematical reduction is no match for myth, imagination, and misinformation, and the story of Pope Joan persists over centuries.

Montgomery’s first drawing in the Pope Joan series, “Her Conviction,” places the viewpoint inside Pope Joan as she tumbles from the horse and so plunges the viewer in the midst of her experience.

Disembodied red papal shoes, flying off the falling pope’s feet, also evoke Dorothy’s ruby slippers in Oz and Cinderella’s transformative glass slippers. Fairy tales, myths, popular stories, and persistent legends lend substance and shadow to the historically obscure figure of a female pope, but Montgomery also builds on empirical evidence, such as the sella stercoraria, to support Joan’s possible existence.

A truly bizarre invention of the late ninth century, the sella stercoraria is a throne with a hole in its seat.

Legend claims that after Pope Joan, popes sat on this chair while a duly appointed cardinal checked underneath for testicles. Another version of the story, no less uncomfortable, is that the open seating was intended to ascertain that the pope had not been castrated. (Apparently some monks elected castration to avoid temptation. For the pope, however, it was important to demonstrate the fortitude to know, and resist, temptation.) Yet another explanation suggests that the chair was a royal bidet or a birthing chair, adopted, across gender, by the papacy to claim regal power or heritage. It is, needless to say, no longer part of the process of papal appointments. Like Pope Joan herself, it may or may not have ever played a role within papal succession.

However hazy its history, the chair exists, carved in purple-hued Egyptian porphyry. One sella stercoraria sits in the Louvre in France; another, in the Vatican Museum. Variations of the sella stercoraria appear in Montgomery’s sculptures and watercolor paintings, which play the solidity of the throne against the faceless, insubstantial form of Pope Joan, defined by her external trappings of papal cap, cape, and billowing vestments, yet invisible in her own body.

Historical reality?

While Joan’s face remains a void in Montgomery’s images, the sculpture entitled “Habemus Mama” is unique in clearly presenting Joan’s pregnant belly and breasts, conically pointed à la Madonna — not the Virgin Mary, but the singer Madonna, whose cone-shaped brassiere designed for the “Blonde Ambition” tour appropriated religious iconography and explored themes of sexuality.

“The breasts and the belly scream out that she’s a woman,” Montgomery says. “So, instead of ‘Habemus Papam’ [‘We have a Pope’] announced from the Vatican, we have a pope…” she pauses, “who is a mother.”

To physically embody the unsubstantial nature of Pope Joan’s maybe/maybe not historical reality, Montgomery employs watercolor and wire, translucent paper and thread. In large-scale watercolor paintings, the background paper threatens to swallow the delicate outlines of watercolor and ink. The lines etch an incisive edge as they define large forms and fine details, like the curlicue flourishes of the indigo letter “A” embroidered on Pope Joan’s [John Angelicus’s] garments. But the overall image remains visually elusive: Pope Joan’s face is always a blank and her corporeal hands, feet and torso are implied inside her papal regalia rather than actually depicted.

The snaking lines of Montgomery’s watercolor and ink paintings move easily into three-dimensional form in her sculptures.

“When I’m doing a painting, I’m thinking about a sculpture, and they kind of talk to each other,” she said. “I love those two media together.” She builds sculptural forms as if drawing with wire, and then, “I add on thread, like I’m still drawing.” Finally, she attaches translucent paper to the wires, using acrylic matte medium, to create the insubstantial volumetric forms that become Pope Joan.

In the paintings and the sculptures, the negative space — the space in between — plays a crucial role in formal composition and in narrative implication. What’s there, and what isn’t there; what’s told, and what remains untold — the omissions tell the story. And the viewer fills in the empty spaces in empathetic engagement with the transgressive woman who might — or might not — have been Pope John Angelicus, also known as Pope Joan.

Kernel of truth

“Is there a kernel of truth in this?” Montgomery asks. “Is it all true? Not true at all?” Or all of the above? “People did not bathe so often, they all wore heavy drapery in many layers, and everyone was skinny…” she points out, “so a female successfully disguised as a male would not be impossible.” And given the constraints on women in Joan’s time, limiting their access to education and prohibiting their freedom to move independently in public, an ambitious, intelligent, determined woman might well wish to disguise herself as a man.

What is Montgomery’s final answer on the existence of Pope Joan?

“I feel there are more roads leading to her existence than not,” she says. However, rather than putting historical truth on trial, Montgomery is engaged in the hidden meanings, why this story survives, and the contradictions it contains.

“... I am interested in what is included and what is concealed from our view,” she writes in her artist statement. “I like how in art we are able to say things from multiple perspectives at once, stories that would otherwise remain untold and sometimes seem unspeakable are told.”

And now, as some Churches within the Anglican Communion ordain women priests and bishops and the Roman Catholic Pope Francis washes the feet of two women on Maundy Thursday (an Easter Week ritual traditionally reserved for the feet of cardinals), the conundrum of Pope Joan speaks evocatively in our time.

For information about Susan Montgomery’s work and upcoming exhibitions, visit susanmontgomeryart.com.

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