The Maid pictured: truth and the aesthetics of Joan of Arc

BY Ali Alizadeh

THEME LEADER Justin Clemens

SUPPORTED BY University of Melbourne, as part of the NGV Triennial – exploring the emerging intersections of art, design, science and society.

Ali Alizadeh is a writer of fiction, poetry, non-fiction and literary criticism. He teaches, researches and supervises in contemporary creative writing, literary theory and literary studies. His PhD was titled ‘La Pucelle: the Epic of Joan of Arc’, and his new book, a novel, is also about Joan of Arc, titled: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc. For Triennial: Voices, Alizadeh created a visual poem in the form of a guillotine, inspired by the French revolution and representing the theme of change in our current political and social climate. See Visual Poem

Ingres Jean-Auguste-Dominique, Jeanne d’Arc au sacre du roi Charles VII dans la cathédrale de Reims, 1854, Musée du Louvre, Paris
Ingres Jean-Auguste-Dominique, Jeanne d’Arc au sacre du roi Charles VII dans la cathédrale de Reims, 1854, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) is not simply one of the protagonists of world history. She is an exemplar of Hegel’s world-historical hero. She is an historical figure on par with other interesting and renowned personae, and also one of the very rare human subjects through whom universal history has manifested itself. To say that she is important or famous would be a gross understatement, almost an inaccuracy. It is far more apposite to say that this young Frenchwoman – known to her contemporaries as La Pucelle (the Maid) – was an inventor of the modern politics of centralised power and national unity. Her leadership and actions during the Hundred Years’ War contributed to the unlikely triumph of the French King Charles VII over his many rivals and adversaries, resulting in a coherent proto-national entity under the rule of one sovereign. With Jeanne the Maid the end of a medieval world of feudal warlords and powerful regional nobles began – a project that culminated 350 years later in the French Revolution.
Since living her brief life in the early fifteenth century, Jeanne has become one of humanity’s most enduring cultural icons, a supreme artistic inspiration and an ideological instrument for a host of political and social actors and movements. In her image and its exceptional endurance, we gain insights into the nature of transcendent fame and super-humanity, and discover a narrative of transformation, immortality and universalism as well as a sobering account of the reification of an historical reality. The teenage female mystic and warrior is not only an enigmatic symbol of eternal courage and commitment to truth and justice, but also a mascot for the political far right in today’s France who offers a useful photo-op for cunning media-savvy capitalists of the European Union. Recently the new president of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, proved his patriotic mettle by posing with a young woman impersonating the heroine at a recent Fêtes de Jeanne d’Arc festival in the city of Orléans.
Philosopher Jacques Rancière’s theory of the image provides a fitting prism through which to view the power and endurance of Jeanne d’Arc’s iconography. Surprisingly, no reliable image exists of this woman so often imaged and imagined by artists and propagandists of the modern world; this uncertainty, however, has not prevented her from playing a key visual role in the modern consciousness. Jeanne’s narrative bears vivid, striking aesthetics that articulate our social concerns. The image of a woman with shortened hair, in a knight’s suit of armour, sitting atop a warhorse embodies gender transgression, female power and popular militancy. The same young woman, unarmed, alone and in chains, facing a hostile religious judiciary comes to symbolise the victimisation of the common people at the hands of our societies’ elites – Jeanne was, despite her meteoric military career, a peasant’s illiterate daughter. And finally, her undeniable, luminous martyrdom, her death amid the flames in the Old Market Square of Rouen, is an image that expresses the profound poetic potential latent in the grotesquery of a brutal public execution.
Understood as an amalgam of aesthetic indices, Jeanne d’Arc provides a logical matrix for the persistent, obsessive revivals and re-imaginings of her image in the centuries following her death. In Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 1854 painting Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII (Jeanne d’Arc au sacre du roi Charles VII) (Louvre Museum, Paris), the Maid has the serene, exalted face of a devout saint, adorned with a thin, golden halo, her eyes raised to Heaven. Yet her visage in this painting sits atop a thick, muscular neck jutting out of a bulk of steel armour and medieval weaponry. No other signifier, either mythical or historical, provides the modern artist with such a potent, ideal synthesis of the religious with the secular. Made at a time when the excessive irreligiosity of the Enlightenment and French Revolution were to be superseded by the spiritual and moral leanings of the ascending democratic bourgeoisie, Ingres’s painting gives us a Maid whose posture, body language and outfit is fused with the sacredness of her Heaven-bound gaze, emphasised by the literal message inscribed at the bottom of the painting: Et son bûcher se change en trône dans les cieux (And her stake was changed into a throne in Heaven).
The Second Coming of Joan of Arc (1994), a play written by American ‘lesbian feminist playwright, performer, director, and activist’ Carolyn Gage, is another more recent example.1 If the dominant artistic regime of Ingres’s era encouraged an overcoming of the divide between the religious and the material, our own neoliberal, ultra-capitalist condition demands a liberalising of the opposition between the content of official historical narratives and the demands of an artistic practice that revisions (or repackages) the past for contemporary consumption. Cage’s Jeanne is a female soldier in modern US military army fatigues who mocks the myth of the ‘beautiful young peasant girl’. Despite its claims to break with the past, however, Gage’s play possesses many of the same aesthetic qualities as past images of Jeanne d’Arc. Although her tough-talking crypto-homosexual tomboy may unsettle the sensibilities of a more culturally conservative audience, Gage’s Joan/Jeanne is still an instrument for conveying an ideological message, like so many other Joans/Jeannes. In this case, she is a conveyer of the concerns of late twentieth- to early twenty-first-century American feminism, including body image issues and the male gaze; a Joan/Jeanne who, amid recounting her ordeals in prison, tells the audience with utmost sincerity and quiet outrage, ‘Every woman who is ashamed of her body is a victim of torture’.2
We may indeed celebrate the diverse ways in which the image of Jeanne the Maid has been put to use. The fact that her image can apparently accommodate so many divergent and disagreeing voices – of contemporary ultranationalists as well as lesbian separatists; of atheists, such as Bernard Shaw, as well as devout Catholics, such as Paul Claudel; Patti Smith the indie punk rebel as well as Madonna the multimillionaire pop queen – is testimony to its pluralising, democratic capacity. But what about Jeanne the Maid’s subjectivity and integrity as neither a fictional nor mythological invention, but as an actual human being? A young woman whose passions and voices – in her own words, as recorded in her letters and in the transcripts of her trials, as well as in those of the Catholic saints whom she claimed spoke to her – are at risk of being silenced, or at least significantly altered, every time an artist uses her recognisable, albeit malleable, image. Should we be concerned about what has been done and continues to be done to the Maid’s truths?
To talk about truth, of course, runs the risk of being labelled unsophisticated, even though postmodernism – the anti-truth ideology par excellence – is supposed to have ended. Are we not mired in the so-called post-truth milieu of digital ambiguity and online fluidity? Furthermore, is it not churlish to merely point out the historical inaccuracies of an artistic take on a past event? To be sure, when I speak of truth I am not at all referring to facts. Indeed, both Ingres’s painting and Gage’s play are clearly conversant with the Maid’s biography. Ingres has depicted Jeanne with long hair in a ponytail, a factual inaccuracy, to perhaps soften and feminise her physique and counter the excessively masculine implications of her knightly armour. But many of the objects and motifs in the painting – Jeanne’s heraldic coat of arms, the design of her standard or battle flag, the sainte ampoule or glass vial of holy oil used at the coronation of Charles VII – are entirely in keeping with historical records. Gage’s play, too, despite its overt deviations from tradition, adheres to some of the key elements of Jeanne’s traditional narrative. Questions of the affective construction of the female body and gender performativity, the specific foci of a strand of 1990s American feminism, are not so alien to the story of the medieval Frenchwoman. It was, after all, Jeanne’s scandalous androgyny which provided her English captors with an official pretext for bringing her before the inquisition.
It is not, in short, recorded facts or historical knowledge that are threatened by the reduction of Jeanne d’Arc to the aesthetics of an image fit for an ever-growing range of adaptations and re-imaginings. (Hopefully it is not too late for me to admit I have created my own account of her life, in the form of a literary historical novel titled The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc [2017].) Truth, as many philosophers since Plato have shown, is absolutely not the same thing as knowledge. As Alain Badiou has demonstrated, truths are produced when the state of knowledge is ruptured by the unsettling consequences of the radical introduction or irruption of the real. What would such a real be in the case of Jeanne the Maid, and what are the truths either precluded or obscured by her imaging?
I do not have sufficient space here to provide anything like a thorough exploration of Jeanne the Maid’s life as an historical event. But I will nevertheless attempt to outline one aspect of the Jeanne-event (to use Badiou’s phrasing). For Badiou, an event entails the production of radical, transformative novelty or truths in a given situation. And in Jeanne’s case, her fierce newness and capacity for producing truths are manifested in her subjectivity as a revolutionary. Indeed, it is the words of Jacobin revolutionary Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, spoken during the French Revolution, which provide a succinct formulation of the revolutionary subject: ‘Those who start revolutions are like the first explorer, guided by their courage’.3 Jeanne, above and beyond all else, is the first navigator of the new, uncharted waters of revolutionary action, where the impossible and inconceivable becomes real: where, among other things, a woman leads an army of battle-hardened men-at-arms; a commoner dominates aristocrats; a king follows a peasant-woman; and a young woman hears the voices of ancient saints who advise her to directly engage in the politics of her world, to leave the sphere of the domestic and the personal and brazenly enter the realms of politics and war so she may end, in her own words, ‘the great pity that there was in France’.
Jeanne d’Arc is the concrete humanisation of the abstract will to change. In the life of this revolutionary, religion and politics do not find a harmonious synthesis – as suggested by Ingres’s painting – but are fused to produce a potent unity of commitment and belief. In the testaments given by Jeanne and in her accounts of her heavenly voices, it is not only the personal that becomes political – as argued by Gage and many gender identity activists – but also, much more dramatically, the political that becomes personal. The tale of Jeanne the Maid, the story of the peasant girl who leaves her village to fight and defeat the enemies of her king and be burnt alive in a faraway region, tells us that the true revolutionary does not think global and act local; she thinks beyond the local and acts, absolutely, unquestionably, universal.
Can an imagist aesthetics of any kind accommodate or produce such an account of Jeanne the Maid? I cannot help but imagine a picture of Jeanne produced in the style of Alberto Korda’s iconic photograph of Che Guevara, Guerrillero Heroico (Heroic Guerrilla Fighter), 1960, but that too may amount to what the great Marxist thinker Walter Benjamin criticised as the aestheticisation of politics.4 Whatever Benjamin’s preferred, recommended alternative to this would entail, it would be neither an eye-catching intensification of her pre-existing image, nor the utilisation of her narrative for the purpose of advancing an ideology. The ultimate challenge for a work of art is to neither ignore nor dwell on images of the past, but to apprehend these as crucial symbols incapable of capturing the reality of history. The truthful work of art must cite yet cut across these images to produce singular, unimagined ideas about the world. It needs to induce a real not previously represented. Such a work of art would be revolutionary, a manifestation of our unknown capacity to change the world.

Ali Alizadeh is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and Literary Studies at Monash University.


1 ‘Bio and Vitae’, Carolyn Gage, , accessed 1 June 2017.
2 ‘The Second Coming of Joan Of Arc Trailer – Julia Reddy’, Youtube, , accessed 6 June 2017.
3 Jean Claude-Milner, ‘The Prince and the Revolutionary’, Crisis & Critique, vol. 3, issue 1, , accessed
6 June 2017.
4 Walter Benjamin, ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’ (1936), Marxists Internet Archive, , accessed 6 June 2017.

Image: Ingres Jean-Auguste-Dominique, Jeanne d’Arc au sacre du roi Charles VII dans la cathédrale de Reims, 1854, Musée du Louvre, Paris