Joan of Arc at the Panthéon
Today we celebrate her Feast, in commemoration of her death at the stake on May 30, 1431, at the age of 19. For a brief and necessarily inadequate account of Jehanne’s extraordinary life, I refer you to my post of last year. This year I was wondering how to honor a woman whose memory has remained so alive through the centuries. And then I thought of that most unfairly ignored of Paris monuments, the Panthéon.
It contains remarkable paintings dedicated to two saints who were also major political figures of their troubled times: Geneviève, patroness of Paris, and Jehanne. The latter series is the work, completed in 1890, of the neoclassical painter Jules Eugène Lenepveu.
First we have Jehanne the peasant girl, receiving the first intimation of her mission under the form of a sword delivered by an angel.
Then so many things happen in such short time: Jehanne, a peasant girl of 16, succeeds in meeting the Dauphin and, against all odds, he entrusts her with an army of 12,000 men. And still more amazing, she turns out to be an outstanding military leader.
Again let us listen to one of her contemporaries: In all she did, except in affairs of war, she was a very simple young girl; but for things of war, such as bearing the lance, assembling an army, ordering military operations, directing artillery, she was most skilled. Everyone marveled that she could act with as much wisdom and foresight as a captain who had fought for twenty or thirty years.
Now Lenepveu shows us Jehanne before the walls of Orléans, where she forces the English troops to life the siege of the city. Here I am reminded of her statement at trial, when asked which she liked better, her banner or her sword: “Better, forty times better, my banner than my sword!“
But Jehanne is not content to win battles. She knows that military success is meaningless if it is not consolidated by the symbolic and religious power of the French monarchy. She convinces the Dauphin to have himself crowned King. Here she is, attending the coronation ceremony of Charles VII at Reims, still holding the banner she carried into battle. This moment is her work, and marks the peak of her glory in this world:
But we know how her life ends. She is captured at Rouen, in Normandy, tried and found guilty of witchcraft and heresy to discredit by association the French King. Confronted by learned theologians, she defends herself with courage and intelligence. Grace never leaves her during the questioning. Yet at the end, when she understands that death at the stake awaits her, her strength fails her and she recants. Not for long: soon she repents her weakness:
“God,” she declares to her judges, ”has sent me word by Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret of the great pity it is, this treason to which I have consented, to abjure and recant in order to save my life. I have damned myself to save my life! Before last Thursday, my Voices did tell me what I should do and what I did on that day. When I was on the scaffold on Thursday, my Voices said to me, while the preacher was speaking: ‘Answer him boldly, this preacher!’ And in truth he is a false preacher; he reproached me with many things I never did. If I said that God had not sent me, I should damn myself, for it is true that God has sent me; my Voices have said to me since Thursday: ‘You have done a great evil in declaring that what you have done was wrong.’ All I said and revoked, I said for fear of the fire.”
In the margin of the transcript, the Court Clerk writes responsio mortifera, “a response that carries a death sentence.” Jehanne might as well have signed her own death warrant (indeed she could sign her name) but others are more than ready to do so.
For a contemporary account, I recommend the Ditie by the great poetess Christine de Pisan, written during Jehanne’s lifetime. Also it is indispensable to read, or reread the transcripts of her condemnation trial, where we can hear her voice in all its boldness, defiance and simplicity, and her nullification trial, conducted twenty years after her death, while many who had had the privilege of knowing her, including her mother, were still alive to testify.