This Tarot card was originally called La Papesse, or "The Popess". Some of the cards directly linked the woman on the cards to the papacy by showing the woman wearing a triregnum or Papal Tiara. There are also some modern versions of the Tarot of Marseilles which include the keys to the kingdom that are a traditional symbol of the papacy. In Protestant post-reformation countries, Tarot cards in particular used images of the legendary Pope Joan, linking in to the mythology of how Joan, disguised as a man, was elected to the papacy and was only supposedly discovered to be a woman when she gave birth. However, Italian Catholics appear to only have seen the La Papesse as representing the Holy Mother Church in an allegorical form, with the Pope taking office becoming married to the Body of Christ, which Catholics refer to in the feminine gender.
In the creation of the Rider-Waite tarot deck the La Papesse card, so confusing to non-Catholics, was changed into The High Priestess sitting between the pillars of Boaz and Jachin (which has a particular meaning to Freemasonry). Other variants that came after Rider-Waite are the Virgin Mary, Isis, the metaphorical Bride of Christ or Holy Mother Church. In Swiss Troccas decks, she is called Junon ("Juno"), the Roman Queen of the Gods. The "Flemish Deck" by Vandenborre (c. 1750-1760) refers to this card as Le Espagnol Capitano Eracasse ("The Spanish Captain Fracasse"), after a version of Il Capitano, a character from Commedia dell'Arte.
La Papessa in the Visconti-Sforza Tarot has been identified as a depiction of Sister Manfreda, an Umiliata nun and a relative of the Visconti family who was elected Pope by the heretical Guglielmite sect of Lombardy. In The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo,
Gertrude Moakley writes:
Their leader, Guglielma of Bohemia, had died in Milan in 1281. The most enthusiastic of her followers believed that she was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, sent to inaugurate the new age of the Spirit prophesied by Joachim of Flora. They believed that Guglielma would return to earth on the Feast of Pentecost in the year 1300, and that the male dominated Papacy would then pass away, yielding to a line of female Popes. In preparation for this event they elected Sister Manfreda the first of the Popesses, and several wealthy families of Lombardy provided at great cost the sacred vessels they expected her to use when she said Mass in Rome at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Naturally, the Inquisition exterminated this new sect, and the "Popess" was burned at the stake in the autumn of 1300. Later the Inquisition proceeded against Matteo Visconti, the first Duke of Milan [sic], for his very slight connections with the sect.
This identification has been supported by other Tarot historians, such as Michael Dummett in his book The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards.