Papacy for Fairy Tales; Peter and Paul's Prison

Film About Female Pope Fails to Mark Martyrs’ Feast

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 1, 2010 ( Ever since antiquity, Romans have loved a good farce. From Plautus to Neri Parenti, women masquerading as men, cliché characters and silly antics have delighted the denizens of the Eternal City.

Unfortunately, the new German film “The Papessa” (or Pope Joan in English) released last week in Rome, eschewed the comic possibilities of recounting the fictional story of a female pope and opted to present a long, heavy, agenda-ridden dirge that makes one long for Monty Python.

Pope Joan is based on the book of the same name by American writer Donna Woolfolk Cross. Published in 1996 after “seven years of research,” it recounts a fairy tale with enough grotesque twists and turns to be worthy of the Brothers Grimm.

The story revolves around Johanna, a young girl raised in ninth century Germany by a priest-father who refused to recognize her intellectual aptitude because in the mind of the Church, “women are inferior.” This last point, underscored by beatings, treachery and rape, makes clear from the outset the author‘s belief that what the Catholic Church clearly needs is a woman’s touch.

Johanna runs away disguising herself as a man, and through a series of “providential” accidents she winds up in Rome. There, through common sense and superior medical skills, her alter-ego “Giovanni Anglicus” becomes the confidante of Pope Sergius II (844-847). Upon Sergius’ untimely death, (brought about by scheming Romans), “Giovanni Anglicus” becomes Pope Giovanni by popular acclamation.

Johanna embarks on a series of reforms including “cathedral schools” for women (despite the fact that these schools won’t exist for two more centuries), rebuilding of aqueducts and general civic improvement. Of course Mass, prayer and sacraments never figure into Johanna’s busy life as friar or pope and the film never shows any kind of ordination of “Giovanni Anglicus.”

Her brief pontificate ends when she dies during an Easter Sunday procession from a miscarriage — a sign that perhaps Johanna’s papacy leans a little more toward Borgia than Benedict — and her name (according to her supporters) was erased from the Liber Pontificalis as revenge.

Pope Joan presents a typical view of the papacy as a corporation where a woman can be a CEO as well as a man. Even Johanna’s seduction of her paramour Count Gerold (played by “Lord of the Ring’s” Faramir, David Wetham) seems like a scene from “Sex in the City.” Johanna can heal bodies with her herbs and diets, but has no concern with healing a soul — indeed when faced with the choice of marriage with Count Gerold or the papacy, she takes the tiara and keeps her suitor on a string.

The Pope Joan tale is about 800 years old and came into being with the heretical Cathars of the 13th century. There are several discrepancies in the stories; some say she was elected in 847, others in 1087. Some insist that she was named Johanna, others counter with Agnes or even Giberta. Some report that she died during her possession ceremony, others claim that she reigned for two years. What is certain is that there is no mention of her before 1250 when the Universal Chronicle of Menz mentions her for the first time.

Pope Joan was never intended as a model for female empowerment; indeed it is about as misogynistic as it gets. In an attempt to break the continuous line of the popes and to show the papacy as a thoroughly human institution, the legend presents an absurd situation, where a woman, and a promiscuous one to boot, managed to slip by the Holy Spirit’s attention.

The story was picked up again by the Protestants in the 16th century and circulated to damage the papacy, at which point David Blondel demonstrated the falsity of the story in a series of studies published in Amsterdam in 1650. The 19th century had a particular attachment to it, as did the 1970s when Liv Ullman starred in the first Pope Joan film. The arrival of Pope Joan round two was fairly predictable in the present environment.

Like most anti-Catholic movies, Pope Joan makes liberal use of St. Paul’s words on women to make its case that the Church has oppressed women from its origins. It was, however, medieval Christian society that brought forth Trotula di Ruggiero, an Italian physician of the 11th century who had a group of aristocratic female students. The University of Bologna, the oldest university in the West, allowed women to attend lectures from its inception in 1088, while the copious scientific writings of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen were produced in the 12th century.

The film takes itself very seriously, resulting in two hours and 19 minutes of tedium. In an attempt to wake audience from its stupor, when the story reaches Rome, the mud-covered sets disappear to be replaced with something out of “I, Claudius.” The papal court sports Caesar cuts and satin togas, while the papal apartments (incorrectly situated at St. Peter’s instead of St. John Lateran) boast gleaming black marble columns, bathhouse architecture and a pharaonic papal bed of velvet hangings and golden statues.

While this film definitely lacks a Derek Jacobi, Peter Ustinov or even Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, John Goodman offers a brief respite with a rollicking performance as Sergius II. After 10 years, with Roseanne Barr, Goodman easily dwarfs the waif Johanna with its sheer joie de vivre. Sadly, he only has a few minutes of the film, but his few scenes serve to remind viewers that it’s only a movie.

Pope Joan was directed by German Sönke Wortmann, a former soccer player-turned-actor-turned-director. Although most of his work has been on German television, he did make two documentaries, “Germany: A Summer’s Fairytale” in 2006 and “the Miracle of Bern” in 2003, both of which are about World Cup soccer matches. Wortmann would have probably been more convincing if he had made a movie about a woman who disguises herself to join the German national soccer team and scored the winning goal — that might be considered sacrilege.

While the film has yet to find an American distributor, it came to Rome just in time for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. So as the world was celebrating the ultimate witness of the first Pope, moviegoers were watching the story of a pope that never existed.

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From dark to light

While the Roman cinema owners may have been confused about how to honor the feast of St. Peter, the superintendent of archaeology was not. After a year of excavations, the Mamertine Prison, where St. Peter and St. Paul were kept before their execution, has been renewed and reopened.

The site of the prison lies adjacent to the Ancient Roman Forum, carved into the rock of the Capitoline Hill and overlooking the Senate house. Believed to have been constructed by Roman King Servius Tullius in the sixth century B.C., the Carcer Tullianum as it is also known, consists of two cells one on top of the other. The lower cell, a cramped dank space, was accessible only through a hole in the floor of the upper cell, and was used throughout the Republic and the Empire as a prison and place of execution.

Gaulish chief Vercingetorix was strangled in that cell after Julius Caesar’s triumph, and Jugurtha, King of the Numidians, was left to starve in the depths of the prison. Writing in the first century B.C., Roman author Sallust described the prison as “12 feet deep, closed all around by walls and a stone vault. Its aspect is repugnant and fearsome from its neglect, darkness and stench.”

A century after Sallust penned this description, St. Peter and St. Paul came to inhabit the vile lower cell, in their last days before their martyrdoms, imprisoned by the Emperor Nero. The presence of the two apostles transformed the place of despair into a locus of hope, preaching and catechizing to their jailers Processus and Martinianus. When the two Roman soldiers asked to be baptized, there was no water in the cell fo
r the sacrament, so St. Peter struck the stone floor with his staff and a fountain poured through the rock. The site of the miraculous flow of water is still commemorated in the lower cell.

Peter’s jailers helped him escape from the wretched prison, but after encountering Christ on the Appian Way, St. Peter turned back and willingly accepted his death by crucifixion in Nero’s circus on the Vatican hill.

Last week, the Roman office of the superintendent of archaeology announced that the excavations had uncovered remains of frescoes documenting the transformation of the site into a Christian devotional space as early as the seventh century, the same period when the Curia was transformed into a church along with several other structures in the Forum. The excavation traced the various stages of the area from archaic stone quarry to prison to the “very rapid transformation” into a Petrine center of devotion.

Today the prison sits under the Church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami built in the 17th century, but the site is owned by the Vicariate of Rome and will be opened to the public by the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi perhaps as early as this July. There pilgrims will have the chance to pay homage to Sts. Peter and Paul, who looked out into a Forum filled with temples dedicated to men who had become gods, and had the courage to proclaim the Gospel of God made man.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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