In the fall of 2010 when I was between jobs, I went to France on a self-styled pilgrimage to visit some of its Gothic cathedrals. Knowing of my desire to learn more about the history and iconography of the famous cathedral at Chartres, my wife, Mercedes, encouraged me to go despite my precarious employment status. Her argument went something like this: “If not now, when you have more time than money, then when?” It didn’t take much convincing.
Using money left over after refinancing our home for an improvement project, I happily set out for a two week sojourn in northern France with stops in Paris, Rouen, Amiens, Chartres, and Reims. I visited abbey churches (photo 1, above), cathedrals, and museums. I walked a lot, rode trains, and ate simple meals (fresh baguettes made every sandwich seem extraordinary). I enjoyed the slower pace and quiet, reflective, moments that enabled me to ponder a range of possible answers to a question that anyone who’s entering his 57th year, when it seems that time is running out, would be well-advised to ask: What’s waiting in the wings?
One of my answers to that question led indirectly to this blog. When I thought about what I’d like to do with the time that remains, I wrote in my journal that I’d like to be “Malcolm Miller’s protégé.” Malcolm Miller has been the resident English-speaking guide at Chartres Cathedral for decades. He knows the cathedral—its history, art, and meaning—like the back of his hand. He’s also very good at communicating it. I first saw Miller in action in 1991, and thought at the time that he has the ideal job; one that would get me out of bed every morning. I wanted to do what he does. So, with all this in mind, I decided to spend six days at Chartres just to hear Malcolm Miller talk about its wondrous cathedral (photo 2).
But on my fourth day in France, before I got to Chartres, something else caught my eye. I learned at a small museum in Rouen, 80 miles northwest of Paris, that Mark Twain was a big fan of St. Joan of Arc (Sainte Jeanne d’Arc in French). The Joan of Arc Museum displayed a letter where Twain wrote that Joan was the “world’s supremest heroine.” It also had an early edition of the author’s last novel, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, a fictional account of her life written from the perspective of a lifelong friend. Twain published it in 1896 when he was 61 years old. What’s more, I learned that he spent the better part of a decade researching background information for the book. I’d never heard of it, nor did I know that Twain considered it his finest literary achievement.
In retrospect, I now see that my brush with Mark Twain and Joan of Arc marked the start of a course correction. Did I really want to be Malcolm Miller’s protégé? I learned during my trip that protégé literally means “protected one.” I sensed that I didn’t need protection beneath an older man’s wings as much as I needed inspiration to lift my own, and for that I had cathedrals and churches all around me including a historic chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc in my hometown (photo 3).
Twain’s deep interest in Joan of Arc’s story helped to broaden my view, and incidentally validated my desire to delve into the stories and symbols one finds in sacred structures everywhere, and follow them where they lead deep into the rich soil of the spirit where the seeds of timeless ideals and enduring principles like love, courage, and self-sacrifice mysteriously start to grow. So, on the 586th anniversary of her death, I am happy to post this article as a tribute to Joan of Arc whose extraordinary life inspired a novel, films (love that Ingrid Bergman!), countless works of art, and my decision to stay put and write about what I’ve been so fortunate to see on my travels. As we revisit Joan’s story, I’ll illustrate it with photos I’ve taken in France, Quebec, and the United States.
Voices of Saints Joan of Arc was born in the Champagne region of France in 1412 at roughly the three quarters mark of a drawn out conflict that historians would later call the Hundred Years War. The war stemmed from a dispute about who was the legitimate ruler of the Kingdom of France. Intermarriage among the royal families of England and France had led to competing claims over the French crown. When Joan was seven years old, the English and their Burgundian allies had the upper hand, occupying entire regions of France and major cities such as Rouen, Caen (photo 4), Reims and Paris.
It was a rough time for France. People had lost hope. One writer notes that many residents of Domremy, Joan’s village, were forced to leave their homes as the war threatened them. The French peasantry suffered under English rule, perhaps none more than the small farmers whose crops and livestock were appropriated without compensation to feed the occupiers. Joan’s father was a tenant farmer, and her mother was a devout Catholic who, it is said, conveyed her deep love of the Church to her daughter. Artists sometimes portray Joan as a pious French farm girl, as in a window at the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Quebec (photo 5).
When she was 13 years old, Joan began to hear saints’ voices. She believed that Michael the archangel (photo 6), Catherine of Alexandria, and Margaret of Antioch wanted her to embark on a divine mission to deliver France from its English enemies and install Crown Prince Charles (i.e., the Dauphin), son of the deceased Valois King Charles VI, as the King of France. Consecrating herself to the cause, Joan took a vow of chastity and later refused an arranged marriage. In January 1429, without a formal education or military training, 17 year old Joan presented herself to the Dauphin and convinced him to place an army under her command to relieve the besieged city of Orleans.
Before the army set out, someone asked about Joan’s sword. Where was it? She didn’t have one, yet. She replied that a sword would be found in a church a few miles from Charles’ encampment at Chinon, and so it was. The sword would later become Saint Joan’s acknowledged attribute, as we see in statuary commemorating her and other martyrs on the North Portal at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York (photo 7).
The Maid of Orleans Joan and her army arrived at Orleans on April 29, 1429. On May 4, she led a successful assault on one of the English forts. Joan led another attack on May 7 and was wounded. She persisted in battle and urged the French troops forward. By May 8, the English had abandoned the siege and were in retreat. The lower panels in the Joan of Arc window at the Washington National Cathedral show Joan on her horse leading the French infantry in a charge against the English (photos 8 & 9, click to enlarge).
After breaking the siege at Orleans, Joan urged the Dauphin to proceed quickly to Reims where, for centuries, French kings were crowned in its cathedral (photo 10, below). Joan, who reportedly had uncommon common sense, understood the symbolic value of a traditional coronation ceremony for French morale. Charles hesitated at first, but after the French defeated an English army at Patay on June 18—as Joan promised they would—the Dauphin set out for Reims with Joan at his side. The coronation of Charles VII took place in Reims Cathedral on July 17, 1429. Joan was present at the ceremony and afterwards knelt before Charles to pronounce him her king, as depicted in the pedestal beneath the Joan of Arc statue at St. John the Divine (photo 11).
In the ensuing months, several towns north of Paris turned from the English side to the French. In early September, the French forces with Joan in the lead made an unsuccessful attempt to take Paris. She was wounded again and retired to the Abbey Church at St. Denis where she paid homage to one of France’s patron saints (photos 12 & 13). By this time Joan’s compatriots had begun to idolize her and Charles may have been wary of her growing power. Nevertheless, after the army disbanded in December for the winter, King Charles VII decreed that Joan and her family would become members of the nobility.
Heretic, Hero, Saint In spring 1430, the Burgundians captured Joan at Compiegne. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints summarizes what happened next: “The duke of Burgundy imprisoned her; Charles made no attempt to save her; the Burgundians sold her to the English, who attributed her success to witchcraft and spells. She was imprisoned at Rouen and tried for heresy by the court of the bishop of Beauvais (a French cleric aligned with the English) who carefully chose her judges. She was examined repeatedly, but made a spirited and shrewd defense, single handed.”
Joan spent a year in captivity, most of it under close guard in a drafty tower in Bouvreuil castle in Rouen (photo 13, above). During her trial, the judges pressed her on the question of her submission to church authority, given that she claimed to communicate with saints directly. She did her best to avoid the trap, maintaining that she held herself answerable to God and the saints. She responded, “I am relying on our Lord, I hold to what I have already said.” When the judges threatened to torture her into submission, she declared that she would reply no differently even under threat of torture. On May 23, 1491, the court convicted her of heresy and handed her over to the secular authorities for punishment. A week later, English executioners burned her to death in Rouen’s market square (photo 14). The record of Joan’s trial was a primary source for Mark Twain and his book.
In 1450, when King Charles VII entered Rouen after his army drove out the English forces, he ordered an inquiry into Joan’s trial. After a thorough investigation by a papal legate, the Pope revoked the findings of heresy against Joan. The French faithful were free to regard her as a national heroine and centuries later, in May 1920, Pope Benedict XV canonized her as a martyred saint.
Voices of Saints, Revisited Did three saints really speak to Joan? It seems to be the source of some controversy among skeptical theologians and psychologists. Let’s take a look at some evidence. It’s obvious that the voices Joan heard inspired her to take extraordinary risks and accomplish unprecedented feats for the love of God, king, and country. It’s also clear that many of her compatriots never doubted that she was a divine messenger, sent to restore their faith in themselves. A prophecy had been gaining traction among the French populace at the time of Joan’s birth, that a young virgin would deliver the country from its English oppressors. Joan, who vowed perpetual chastity at an early age, was thought to be that deliverer. Those who knew and fought beside her took heart in her example and encouragement, and they carried on bravely after she died. They sensed something transcendent about her.
But along with what we can see of her impact on others, I think it’s important to consider what the three saints might have meant to young Joan. To put it another way, what did they symbolize? It’s a key question because symbolism, says theologian Huston Smith, is the “technical language” of religion; of human correspondence with the divine.
When we look closely at the traditions involving Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret, we find some interesting connections between their stories and Joan. She embodied qualities associated with each of them. The Bible’s Book of Revelation describes St. Michael as the principal fighter against the forces of evil who was thought by the Church to lead the armies of God. He’s the patron saint of the military and is often depicted, as in photo 6 above, as a powerful warrior. Joan too, was a warrior and leader.
St. Catherine of Alexandria declared herself to be a “bride of Christ” and is one of the early church’s virgin saints. Legend has it that she turned down the emperor’s marriage proposal. He didn’t take kindly to being spurned so Roman authorities tortured her on a spiked wheel, ever after called a “Catherine wheel.” She survived the torture and was martyred by beheading, signified by the palm branch and red blade in a window at Albany’s Roman Catholic cathedral (photo 15, below). Joan too, refused marriage.
St. Margaret of Antioch also was a beautiful virgin who, according to legend, for the love of Christ refused a Roman official’s marriage proposal. As punishment, he had her put on the rack, beat with rods, and had her flesh raked with iron combs. She survived these horrible tortures and was thrown into her cell where a monstrous dragon suddenly appeared and began to swallow her whole. Margaret made the sign of the cross and the dragon disintegrated. The dragon lies at Margaret’s feet, likely symbolizing the evil of her oppressor, in a 19th century stained glass window at the cathedral in Albany, NY (photo 16). Joan too, withstood oppression.
A fascinating window at St. Roch’s church in Quebec City pulls it all together through the symbolic use of flowers (photo 17). It depicts Joan with her emblematic sword standing in a garden with a cathedral in the background. Flowers associated with three saintly virtues appear in the composition. The lilies stand for innocence and purity; roses symbolize self-sacrifice; and irises, sometimes called sword lilies, signify divine messengers. The fleurs de lis on her skirt signify devotion to France. I’m inclined to think that Mark Twain, who wrote that Joan “was unfailingly true in an age that was false to the core,” would have liked the window as much as I do.
Copyright 2017 by Michael Klug, firstname.lastname@example.org, May 30, 2017