Pope Joan is a controversial figure from the 9th century, whose story can be found in legend and disputed historical records. According to these sources, extensively researched by Cross, Joan was a medieval woman who took up her brother's identity upon his death in a Viking attack. She entered the monastery in his stead so she could receive the type of education denied to women in the Dark Ages. Soon, she became renowned as a scholar and healer and ventured into Rome's political sphere. Eventually, her intelligence and talent led her to be elected pope, a position she held for two years before the discovery of her true gender.
While some discredit the legend entirely, other historians argue that enough evidence exists to prove the legend's legitimacy. They also posit that historical records are so difficult to find in the first place due to efforts by the Catholic Church to cover up the facts of Pope Joan's papacy.
In her novel, Donna Woolfolk Cross compiled her historical research into a fictionalized recounting of the type of person Pope Joan might have been, the events she might have lived through, the triumphs she might have achieved, and the trials she might have endured.
Cross's POPE JOAN was originally published by Crown in 1996 (with newer editions being released as recently as 2009). Thirty-two other countries published the book as well, and it quickly became an international bestseller. In 2009, the book was made into a movie that turned into a #1 film in Germany. Learn more about the book and film in our previous posts here.
A female pope, especially one as surrounded in historical controversy as this one, offers many challenges and possibilities for her depiction on book covers. Some editions of the book give Pope Joan a more masculine appearance with just a hint of her female gender, others have chosen an androgynous look, while still others depict her with undeniably feminine features. Below we present several samples of the wide variations in Pope Joan's depiction across the globe.
(If you enjoy the below covers and are interested in further ruminations regarding covers, check out our post “How covers evolve across the globe” here.)
Indonesia, PT Serambi Ilmu Semesta, 2007 - This is a slightly stylized version of the 2005 US cover edition. Pope Joan's clothing doesn't look particularly feminine, but her hair is pulled back with a feminine, pearl hairpiece. You can view the 2009 US cover update, which zooms in on Pope Joan's face and cuts out the hairpiece, on the Random House website here.
Poland, Ksiaznica, 2000 - This cover has a much more ethereal feel. A face in the sky gazes over a medieval city. Is it the face of Pope Joan, looking over her congregants? Or the face of God? Meanwhile, a smaller, ghostly white figure floats over the buildings on the left.
Poland, Publicat, 2012 - For this much more recent publication of POPE JOAN in Poland, the figure of Pope Joan has been given a very masculine feel. The depiction of her from behind avoids showing the possible feminine features of her face. The dark brown and yellow-green coloring give the book a decidedly darker tone than Ksiaznica's Polish edition. This image is actually from a still of the movie, with the coloring changed by the publisher.
France, Presses de la Cite, 1997 - Here, Pope Joan's hair is long and she wears a dress. She is decidedly feminine in appearance. Joan almost looks saintly, with angelic figures holding up her garments, adoring priests on her right, and adoring nuns on her left.
France, France Loisirs, 1997 – This is a French book club edition that would have appeared around the same time as the above French edition. While Pope Joan looks more masculine in the face here, her pose, with the baby in her arms, harkens to that of paintings of the Madonna and child.
Latvia, Jumava, 2000 – Pope Joan looks very much like a nun here. The puzzle piece stylization, with one puzzle piece missing, gestures to the mystery behind her legend.
Japan, Soshihsa, 2005 - Pope Joan's gender is ambiguous here. The jewels and curled hair could certainly be an indication of the refinery that would have been in the pope's possession, and yet, with pearls threaded the hair as they are and around the neck like a necklace, readers are given a hint that the above might be a female figure.
Taiwan, Sitak Publishing, 2001 – This cover, by far, features the most feminine-looking version of Pope Joan, who appears more like a 1980s prom princess than anything else. The buildings behind her give only the slightest hint that the book takes place in historical times.
Germany, Rutten and Loening, 2001 - While it may be hard to tell from our scanned version of the above cover, the red background is actually red velvet. The image in the center shows POPE JOAN with just the slightest hint of breasts. Something about Pope Joan's story captivated readers in Germany, a country whose majority religion is split fairly evenly between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. POPE JOAN became a mega-bestseller there, was beloved enough to be bound in velvet, and was turned into a play and a musical. Maybe the musical's next stop could be Broadway!
Korea, Yedam Publishing Company, 1999 - Here, Pope Joan's gender again appears rather ambiguous. She looks ready for battle, sporting metal armor a bit like Joan of Arc would much later, in the fifteenth century.
UK, Quartet Books, 1998 – This cover depicts the type of wrap Joan might have worn around her chest underneath her papal clothes. While the wrap and the necklace are certainly feminine in appearance, this cover cleverly reveals how any hints of Joan's femininity would have had to have been carefully hidden.
While a pope can be depicted in many different ways, as evidenced by the above cover images, it also seems apparent that it is a pope's actions that make a papal reign, or legend, or story, worthwhile--regardless of whether those actions were accomplished by a male or a female, a Benedict, or a Francis, or a Joan.
In responding to the recent ascension of Pope Francis I, Donna Woolfolk Cross noted that nothing in papal edicts specifically states that a woman cannot become a pope. Maybe the next time we watch white smoke rise from the Sistine Chapel, we will be celebrating the election of a new female pope.