Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Happy Birthday St Joan

Joan of Arc turned 600 last week if the sketchy records are to be believed. She was purportedly born on Jan 6th 1412. Even if this date is out by a day or decade or two, the enduring interest in her is quite remarkable.

Is it because she was so young when she died - 19? Or because she was burned at the stake as a witch, later became a martyr and finally a saint? Or perhaps because she was a lone woman in a time of men? Maybe it was due to her total conviction in the celestial voices urging her to become a virgin warrior, shave off her hair, don armor and lead the crusade against England to save France? An illiterate peasant girl defying noblemen and priests? How amazing that a female teenager had the ability to unite an army of men and persuade them to not only go to war, but to win! And all this in the 15th century!

Whatever the reason, she has been immortalised over the centuries in all art forms. In painting,

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 - 1882)

Ingres (1780 - 1867)

in photography

in music

in sculpture (nearly every town in France has one),

in literature

and in film.  Who can forget the incredible performance of Renee Falconetti in Dreyer's 1928 masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc? Based on actual court records (that is amazing in itself given she was tried in the 1400s), the silent film focuses on Joan's trial, using the transcript as subtitles. It is excruciating to watch yet unforgettable, as nearly every frame features Joan's face close up, full of anguish and despair as she faces her accusers. I saw it again last year at the White Light Festival, this time with a live score by Portishead's Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp's Will Gregory. It was a sellout, testament to the film's enduring appeal.

Joan became a pinup girl for American women during WWI. And she even made it into Esquire Magazine's 2010 list of the greatest 75 women in history! 

I became obsessed with her at school after studying Shaw's play "St Joan". I even chose a monologue from Shaw's St Joan as my drama college audition when I was determined to be the next Meryl Streep  (Cate Blanchett had not yet come to prominence. But for what it's worth, she would have been my acting heroine then.)

JOAN.  Where would you all have been now if I had heeded that sort
of truth?  There is no help, no counsel, in any of you.  Yes: I am
alone on earth: I have always been alone.  My father told my
brothers to drown me if I would not stay to mind his sheep while
France was bleeding to death: France might perish if only our lambs
were safe.  I thought France would have friends at the court of the
king of France; and I find only wolves fighting for pieces of her
poor torn body.  I thought God would have friends everywhere,
because He is the friend of everyone; and in my innocence I
believed that you who now cast me out would be like strong towers
to keep harm from me.  But I am wiser now; and nobody is any the
worse for being wiser.  Do not think you can frighten me by telling
me that I am alone.  France is alone; and God is alone; and what is
my loneliness before the loneliness of my country and my God?  I
see now that the loneliness of God is His strength: what would He
be if He listened to your jealous little counsels?  Well, my
loneliness shall be my strength too; it is better to be alone with
God; His friendship will not fail me, nor His counsel, nor His
love.  In His strength I will dare, and dare, and dare, until I
die.  I will go out now to the common people, and let the love in
their eyes comfort me for the hate in yours.  You will all be glad
to see me burnt; but if I go through the fire I shall go through it
to their hearts for ever and ever.  And so, God be with me!
- From Penguin Classics, St Joan, George Bernard Shaw

The cult of St Joan shows no signs of abating - not this year anyway. We have new biographies to look forward to and a year-long calendar of commemorative events in France if you happen to be there in 2012. And the debates will continue to rage. But for me, I don't care if she is seen as a feminist, or religious freak or saint or warmonger. I just think of her as a young chick with a hell of a lot of spunk who followed her conscience in the face of adversity. I would have her as a dinner guest any day - armor and spiritual voices welcome.

images: wikipedia, corbis, canvas replicas, solve sandsbo/ art+commerce,  amazon, ruslania, colorbox, barnes & noble, amazon,   film sufi, the final take, fine art america

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