Fact or fiction? Easthampton artist Susan Montgomery ponders legend of Pope ...
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.