By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 27, 2006
The little Latin books, medieval swords, dinner bells and film stills crowded in its cases aren't what mainly matter. What matters is the girlish, great, utterly improbable person they call forth, and the forces she deploys on her long, triumphant march into your mind.
Joan of Arc (1412-1431), dead while in her teens, didn't have much time. She made the most of what she had. That illiterate, sincere, cross-dressing young woman -- who talked to saints and angels, led an army into battle and helped liberate her land -- got as close to immortality as humans ever get.
Not all by herself, of course. Joan had a lot of help.
Her fame's the work of many hands. They're sort of like her army. Mark Twain, the Ringling Bros., Shakespeare, Voltaire, the United States government, George Bernard Shaw, Napoleon, Ingrid Bergman, many painters (good and not so good), Pope Benedict XV and Cecil B. De Mille all fell under her spell, and helped make her a celebrity for reasons of their own.
Mark Twain adored her. His daughter Suzy said he loved only two women, "Momma in the present, and Joan retrospectively."
Shakespeare trashed her. She wasn't English. In "Henry VI, Part 1," sweet Joan is presented as a "foul accursed minister of hell," and a pregnant one to boot. Joan, who wore men's trousers, and cut her hair short, and was burnt while still a virgin, was not the sort of woman who depended on good looks, or on men's adoration, but of course that didn't matter. "Patently pornographic" is how the exhibition's two curators -- Nora M. Heimann, who chairs the art department at Catholic University, and Laura Coyle, a former Corcoran curator -- describe the illustrations for Voltaire's "The Maid of Orleans," which they're too discreet to show.
Napoleon, who knew about self-promotion, had a medal struck with Joan on one side and himself on the other. His medal is in the show.
Shaw wrote a play about her. So did Friedrich Schiller. The great Sarah Bernhardt played her on the stage.
In 1909, in Harvard Stadium, Maude Adams appeared as Joan before an audience of 15,000. (A whirling barrel of bullets made the sound of rain; cannonballs rolled down wooden chutes produced the thunder.)
The Ringling Bros. spectacle of 1912 and 1913 had a costumed cast of 1,200, not counting the horses.
And don't forget the movies. There have been more than two dozen. De Mille's was released in 1917, Carl Dreyer's in 1928, and Luc Besson's "The Messenger" in 1999. Two others starred Ingrid Bergman. The Maid even had a bit part in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" of 1989.
Painters used her, too, and with comparable license. Sir Peter Paul Rubens's armored Joan is characteristically Rubenesque; like so many of his women she has long, red uncut hair. In 1854, long before the Vatican canonized her in 1920, J.A.D. Ingres, that meticulous French master, supplied her with a halo. In 1904, Howard Pyle, who illustrated books for boys, made her an action hero, but then she wasn't yet a saint.
The best of the Joan paintings in the Corcoran's exhibition are the six by Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel (1851-1913) that belong to the museum, and they are one of the good reasons for this thorough show.
It's no wonder all these artists have found her irresistible. Her story, the stuff of legend, is as fabulous as Helen of Troy's, or the Amazons', or Wonder Woman's, except it isn't a legend. At both of her long trials every word was written down, and both transcripts survive. Joan is not a fantasy. She may be the best-documented woman of her age. You have to read a lot of exhibition labels, and absorb a lot of information, before Joan's concentric dramas start whirling through your mind.
War dramas: The tide of battle turned in the Hundred Years War when Joan's swarming army raised the siege of Orleans in 1429. "I was the first to set a ladder against the fortress," she remembered, "and, as I raised it, I was wounded in the throat by a cross-bow bolt. But I did not cease to ride . . ."
Mystery plays: Joan was just 13 when she heard the voice of Michael the Archangel. She said: "The first time, I was terrified. The voice came to me about noon: it was summer, and I was in my father's garden. . . . There was a great light all about. . . . And the voice said that I would raise the siege of Orleans."
The wondrous sword: Joan's was found beneath a stone "behind the altar" in a church at Fierbois. "It was found there all rusted, and on it there were five crosses . . . , and the rust fell away of itself." Joan swore she never killed a man, but she often carried steel. "I loved that sword," she said.
Legal dramas: After she'd been captured, and handed to her enemies, Joan underwent two long iffy trials. She was convicted at the first, in May 1431, after scores of learned theologians allied with the English testified against her. Young Joan, the judges ruled, was "a witch," an "enchantress" and "a caller-up of evil spirits" whose inexcusable behavior had been "perturbing and obstructing." Also she'd "indecently put on the ill-fitting dress of men." Offered life in prison, Joan was willing to recant "for fear of the fire," but her recantations did no good. They burnt her two weeks later in the Old Market Place in Rouen.
Boutet de Monvel's paintings, with their ruby reds and emerald greens and hammered-in gold leaf, look like medieval reliquaries, except there aren't any Joan reliquaries because there aren't any Joan relics. Her executioners, to ensure this, first burnt her into ashes, then threw her ashes in the Seine.
Twenty-five years later she was exonerated on appeal, a worthy decision, but late.
We don't know what she looked like, but we'll never lose her voice.
Asked if she could read the charges lodged against her, she said, "I do not know A from B." When asked if the Archangel had appeared before her naked, she had just the right response: "Do you think that God has not wherewith to clothe him?"
As to dressing like a man: "I was many times admonished to wear women's clothing: I refused, and I still refuse. As to other womanly duties, there are enough other women to perform them."
To intimidate the witness, the prosecuting clerics kept administering new oaths.
"I promise to tell the truth," said Joan, "and the more you make me swear, the longer it will be before I tell you."
The more you read her words the more you feel you know her. She never lies or dodges. She is never impolite. She doesn't seem the least bit crazy. Although frightened, for good reason, she seems utterly sincere.
There are 200 objects in the Corcoran's exhibit. Lots seem hyped or hokey. Many serve their own agendas (Napoleon's medal, for example). Some are souvenirs, others are just ads. Joan rises above all of them. Those things are merely artifacts. She's the real thing.