The Koan of Joan

From Elaine’s Lumière column for T Magazine’s The Moment.

Solve Sundsbo/Art + Commerce
A 2007 depiction of Joan of Arc by Solve Sundsbo for Numéro magazine.

 

Today is the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc, the cross-dressing, teenage virgin-warrior-martyr-saint. So what better way for President Nicolas Sarkozy — three months away from an election and mired in Europe’s economic crisis — to feel good about France than to make a pilgrimage to her birthplace?

 

Not that there’s much to see or do in Domrémy-la-Pucelle, an economically depressed village of fewer than 200 people. Joan’s “house” — a tiny, odd-looking edifice with yellow-brown stains, an unkempt garden and a statue of Joan that’s missing a left hand and a right arm — was built sometime after her death. There’s a private museum a few hundred yards away (closed today), but no gift shop to buy a Joan of Arc T-shirt or sword.

 

Philippe Wojazer/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
President Nicolas Sarkozy in Vaucouleurs, France, on Friday; he called Joan a symbol of the country’s “unity.”

 

Nevertheless, Sarkozy seized the opportunity to embrace the past rather than confront the future. Just after the visit to Domrémy-la-Pucelle, where he was greeted by a small band, a line of local officials and a thin crowd of a few dozen visitors, he stopped in Vaucouleurs, where Joan is said to have begun her mission to lead the dauphin to victory. In a speech in an underheated gym there, he declared that “Joan belongs to no party, to no faction, to no clan.”

 

Actually this is hard-core conservative country. And Sarkozy, who is expected to seek a second term, is trailing badly in the polls behind François Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate. He may try to lure voters from the ultra-right National Front, as he did in 2007, with calls to preserve the “true” identity of a unified France. To this end, he’s put Joan on his front line. Since the 1980s, she has been the icon of the National Front, which celebrates her every year as the personification of Gallic pride and purity in the face of the country’s modern-day invaders: immigrants. And with his appearance today — during which he invoked the “Christian roots” of France and called Joan the symbol of the country’s “unity” — the president pre-empted the National Front. Marine Le Pen, the expected candidate and leader of the party, will have to play catch-up when she holds her own tribute to Joan on Saturday in an open-air rally in front of a statue of the saint in central Paris.

 

Never mind that Jan. 6 might not even be Joan’s birthday, which was never recorded. (She herself told the Inquisitors at her trial for heresy and witchcraft that she didn’t know exactly when she was born. The feast of the Epiphany was chosen for her by a literary-minded member of the royal court.) She remains one of the most myth-generating, true-life heroines in French history. She was physically strong and emotionally independent, vowing to stay virginal because she took her orders from God. Although she was an illiterate country girl, she was smart enough to convince her parents that voices from Heaven were telling her to leave home and restore the king to his throne. She sweet-talked the man who would be king into giving her money, horses, weapons and soldiers to rid France of its English invaders. She lifted the siege of Orléans and led the way for him to be crowned King Charles VII at Reims. Then she was captured, sold to the English, tried and convicted. Forced into a dress, she was burned at the stake in 1431. She was 19.

 

Bettmann/Corbis
A painting of Joan of Arc by the 19th-century artist Albert Lynch.

 

France has not always fought over Joan. The kings, loath to recognize as their savior a woman who might also have been a witch, ignored her. Voltaire mocked her as an “unfortunate idiot.” Then Jules Michelet, the 19th-century historian, credited her for transforming France into a woman worthy of love.

 

In World War I, French soldiers prayed to her, and the United States put her on a fund-raising poster, auburn-haired, blue-eyed, long-lashed and red-lipped. The Vatican made her a saint in 1920, and in World War II, both the Vichy regime and the anti-Nazi resistance called her a source of inspiration.

 

Across the years, novels, plays, biographies, films, songs, operas, ballets and comic books have told her story. Her image has been put on labels for mineral water, liqueur and cheese. A naval training ship was named after her. A Joan of Arc game for Sony PlayStation has given her mystical armlets to fight hordes of monsters unleashed by the English.

 

The commemoration will continue throughout 2012 in France, with parades, conferences, concerts, art competitions, sound-and-light shows and a pilgrimage along the route from birth to death. (Almost every French city and town boasts a statue or painting of Joan, almost every church a stained glass window or plaque.) Orléans kicked off a series of events with a grand celebration today, including the debut of “Miss Joan of Arc 2012,” the teenage girl who best represents her values and is willing to ride a horse around town while wearing 25 pounds of armor.

 

Three books about Joan have been published this month, including two biographies and a novel. And the newspaper Le Figaro recently issued a 114-page special color supplement on Joan, “the myth, the legend, the history.”

 

Will the yearlong celebration shed any new light on Joan? Her role model as a feminist is a longstanding subject of debate: French feminists have never seen her as such, but their Anglo-Saxon sisters saw in Joan the liberation of women from the bonds of marriage and motherhood. Asked during her trial why she was commanding an army rather than keeping to “other womanly duties,” like raising children, Joan shot back, “There are enough other women to do those things.”

 

According to Colette Beaune, a medieval historian and one of Joan’s most eminent biographers, Joan ate and drank little, was anorexic, never menstruated, hated physical contact and was terrified of being raped. Beaune noted — and dismissed — speculation that Joan was a lesbian.

 

Perhaps a more complex, even more feminine, Joan will emerge. In French art, she has always been the dour shepherdess with braids, the flat-chested tomboy in tights, the armored goddess on horseback. In fashion, she has most often been transformed, by designers ranging from Alexander McQueen to Christophe Decarnin, into a mercenary of hard-shell glamour. Even the model-actress Mila Jovovich played Joan as crazed, shrill and angry in Luc Besson’s 1999 film, “The Messenger.” (A short-haired Ingrid Bergman was just too old — 33 — when she played Joan in 1948.)

 

I am always amazed to see Joan looking stylish — a rare depiction. In one 15th-century illuminated manuscript showing her at the stake, she is tall, slim-waisted and dressed in a tightfitting red dress pierced at the neck with a deep V. She arches her back as she stares at her captors. In Otto Preminger’s 1957 film biography, Jean Seberg is an elegant Joan in a long black belted jacket.

 

I once asked Marie-Christine Chantegrelet, the president of the Joan of Arc Association in Orleans, which serves to keep Joan’s memory alive, whether Joan had a feminine side. She said that for the coronation, Joan had a dress made for herself, and that when she traveled through certain towns, she asked for fabric so dresses could be made for her. “I have the image of a young woman warrior,” she said, “who was a coquette on the side.”

 

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