The polyvalent impact of Joan of Arc

00d/27/frum/14715/f8X055Christine de Pizan (1364 – c. 1430)

“The Song of Joan of Arc is the only popular piece written about Joan in her lifetime. The author, Christine de Pizan, was a professional writer at the Court of Charles VI of France (1380-1422), an unusual occupation for a woman at that time. In 1418, Christine retired to the monastery of Poissy, where her daughter was a nun. All her works, except the “Song,” predate her retirement.” (From Joan of Arc Documents, Indiana University). She came out of retirement to write her song about Joan during her military victories and before her downfall. The poem maintains an exalted and prophetic tone about Joan’s role in French  history. This was Pizan’s last work. Richard Einhorn used her poem in the text of his oratorio Voices of Light.



william-shakespeareWilliam Shakespeare ((1564-1616)

Shakespeare gave a full political and military voice (albeit an unsympathetic one)  to Joan of Arc in his play King Henry VI, Part I. Representing Joan from  an English perspective, the play still demonstrates that Joan had gained historical importance for changing the destinies of both the French and the English.






Friedrich_schillerFriedrich von Schiller (1759-1805)

The great German poet and playwright wrote Die Jungfrau von Orleans as a tragedy in five acts. He uses Joan’s story as a vibrant symbol for the values of new German nationalism. The play remained popular until World War 1, but it represents the first of many examples using the figure of Joan of Arc to extoll nationalist sentiments. Its well regarded classical form and defense of freedom became the foundation for the libretti for  operas by Verdi and Tchaikovsky.





Voltaire, détail du visage (château de Ferney)Voltaire (1694-1778)

The Maid of Orleans was a ribald and skeptical satire on the life and deeds of Joan of Arc by Francois-Marie Arouet, the eminent French writer and philosopher. Joan of Arc was a useful lightning rod for Voltaire’s attacks against the Church.  In spite of its outrageous attitude, the satire was widely circulated and became one of the most read texts about Joan in the 18th century.




napoleonNapoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

Although Napoleon initially displayed the mistrust of the Church that characterized the French Revolution, by the time he crowned himself Emperor he saw useful to adopt the trappings of previous French Catholic kings. It also served him to galvanize sentiment against England. This time also sees the emergence of a polarization in France by which the figure of Joan of Arc is co-opted by monarchist groups,  allied to the Church,  against Republican parties who tended to be anticlerical. This polarization continued throughout the 19th century and has reemerged with force today. It has been argued that Napoleon embraced the figure of Joan or Arc with these general political objectives.



twainMark Twain (1835-1920)

Writing in a 1904 Harper’s essay, Mark Twain referred to Joan of Arc as “by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” In the same piece, he christened her “The Miracle Child” and “The Wonder of the Ages.” The famous American author had published a fictionalized biography of Joan titled Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc  as a serial with a pseudonym, running in Harper’s between April 1895 and April 1896. He considered it his best work, in spite of the fact that critics found it baffling and inconsistent with the rest of his oeuvre. Twain’s  fascination was genuine and seemed to stem from an affinity with Joan’s perceived purity of both purpose and image.



sarah b as joansarah_bernhardt poster_2Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923)

Sarah Bernhardt’s role as Joan of Arc in 1899 prompted the creation of a famous poster by Eugene Grasset (1841-1917). This was one of many images that proliferated at the beginning of the mediatic era, increasing both the celebrity of Bernahrdt and the iconic power of Joan of Arc as a woman warrior.  This attractive image would influence many other posters that would flourish later as part of the early feminism, especially singe Bernhardt herself supported the suffragist movement.




Bernard-George-ShawGeorge Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)Saint_Joan_(play)

Shaw wrote the play Saint Joan as his only tragedy in 1924. He aimed to present an objective view of both the English and the French, “a tragedy without villains,” beyond the partisan nationalist passions surrounding Joan of Arc by the early 20th century.  Intriguingly, two years before Dreyer’s film, Shaw also based his play in historical documents and on the trial. Furthermore, the poster shows Joan with extended arms in a cross position and references to birds figure prominently in the play.



curieMarie Curie (1867-1934)

The Wikipedia article on Marie Curie states that she was “a Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win in two fields, and the only person to win in multiple sciences. She was also the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris, and in 1995 became the first woman to be entombed on her own merits in the Panthéon in Paris.” In her biography of Curie, Susan Quinn includes a reference to an homage to Curie before a trip to America. In that occasion, the great impersonator of Joan of Arc, the actress Sarah Bernhardt read a poem to Curie: “No, you have never led an army, no voices whispered stern commands, but your sincere consuming passions, far outshine the burning brands.” In so doing, she equated Curie with Joan of Arc, and shifts Joan’s symbolism outside of the sphere of Romantic nationalism into the realm of modern feminism.


churchillSir Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

In his sweeping book The Birth of Britain, Churchill wrote a clear-eyed view of the invasion of France by the English, and praised Joan with the following words: “Joan was a being so uplifted from the ordinary run of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years. She embodied the natural goodness and valour of the human race in unexampled perfection. Unconquerable courage, infinite compassion, the virtue of the simple, the wisdom of the just, shone forth in her. She glorifies as she freed the soil from which she sprang. ” The experience of the two world wars gradually generated a form of reconciliation of British and French sentiments towards Joan of Arc.


220px-Inez_milhollandInez_Milholland_1913Inez Milholland(1886-1916)

In March 2013 American women celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Washington’s Women’s Suffrage Parade.  The suffragist movement fighting for American women’s right to vote had used Joan of Arc as symbol from the start. During the suffragists parade of 1913, Inez Mulholland, a wealthy, beautiful and ambitious woman rode on a horse dressed as Joan of Arc. She died very young, before women earned the right to vote in 1920. Her last words were “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”




joan of arc-bob-hairstylesAntoine and the Joan of Arc haircut

Jeanne d’Arc’s short haircut had a profound effect on women’s hairstyles in the twentieth century. In 1909, the Paris hairdresser Antoine took Jeanne d’Arc as the inspiration for the bob, which ended centuries of taboo against women who cut their hair. The style became popular in the 1920s and was associated with liberated women. Nearly all subsequent Western hair fashions are designed for women who cut their hair at least occasionally. Such haircut is now a regular option for modern women and is still known in French as coupe à la Jeanne d’Arc (Jeanne d’Arc’s haircut).





250px-Maxwell_Andersonbgman03Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959) and Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982)

Known for his recreations of historical characters for the stage, Anderson wrote the very popular Broadway production Joan or Lorraine (1946) as a play within a play. Anderson later turned the play into a script for the movie Joan of Arc, eliminating the play within a play format.  They were both vehicles for Ingrid Bergman, who at that time had captivated the American public as a model of moral womanhood. It is said that Bergman had a great admiration fr Joan in her childhood. From this play comes a famous line that for many years was believed genuinely uttered by Joan: “One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it.  But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.”



Charles_de_GaulleCharles de Gaulle (1890-1970)

The general, one of the most significant political figures of the 20th century, faced division and polarizations in France as he fought the Nazis and re-initiated France’s democratic life after WWII.  Many legends surround his reported devotion to Joan of Arc, but he used the Cross of Lorraine as a symbol of France’s unity during his long career.





Bertolt-BrechtBertoldt Brecht (1898-1956)

The influential playwright wrote three plays on Joan. The most famous was Saint Joan of the Stockyards (Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe), which analysts define first as a response of Schiller’s romantic tragedy The Maid of Orleans and its purported nationalism and individual freedom as the ideological roots of the bourgeois value system and capitalism.  By contrast, Brecht presents Joan as a representative of the worker in search of liberty and social equality, a new dimension in the appropriation of Joan’s heroic image for new political developments in the early 20th century.




honnegerArthur Honneger (1892-1955)

In 1938, the Swiss composer wrote his uniquely conceived dramatic oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (“Joan of Arc at the Stake”) as a representation of Joan’s last minutes before her death. It involved the collaboration of some of the most significant modernist artists around Joan’s story, including poet Paul Claudel,  actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein, conductor and arts patron Paul Sacher, and music instrument inventor Maurice Martenot. This collaboration pioneered the interdisciplinary co-creative projects of today. Roberto Rosellini made a filmed version for Ingrid Bergman, in yet another association of Joan with the Swedish actress.  It has remained in the repertoire ever since. In a demonstration of how Joan of Arc remains a reference for different breakthroughs by other women, the Oregon Bach Festival took the opportunity to equate the female conductor Marin Alsop to Joan of Arc in its marketing of Honneger’s oratorio in 2011. In  2015 Marion Cotillard will take the role with the New York Philharmonic.



simone de beauvoirSimone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)

The eminent French philosopher and companion of Jean-Paul Sartre wrote The Second Sex (1949) one of the most influential feminist treatises of all time. Paradoxically, she challenged the already canonized Joan of Arc as a model for feminism, since Joan was still subjected to the will of a king and pursued her aims through a male persona.




le penJean-Marie Le Pen (b.1928)

Father and daughter, Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen are the leaders of France’s National Front and members of the European Parliament. In a revival of France’s most extreme nationalism, the Le Pens regularly organize parades to Joan of Arc’s monument by the Louvre, using her image to advance what some consider antisemitic and racially-charged views, an opinion that they rebuke.  In many ways, this appropriation of Joan of Arc’s legacy for extreme right-wing purposes has pushed her iconic charge outside of inclusive policies for the defense of human rights in France, in a stark reversal to the situation in the early 20th century.



GTY_malala_yousafzai_jt_131006_16x9_992Malala Yousafzai (b.1997)

Born in Pakistan in a Sunni Muslim Pashtun community, Malala was shot by members of her own community in 2012 for defending the right of women to an education. Surviving the attack she has impressed the world with her maturity and clearheadedness as she continues to defend women’s rights. She is a candidate for the Nobel Peace Price, and has inspired many to say that she is like what Joan of Arc must have been like. “She talks with the fierce clarity of a prophet, and observing her calm, resolute gaze is the nearest we will come to knowing what Joan of Arc looked like when she declared: “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.”

C.H. Téllez