Why Joan of Arc?

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What would a 21st century American find compelling about a trip in northern France that traces the life of Joan of Arc from her birthplace to where she was burned at the stake? Why would a gay man who decades ago left the Roman Catholic Church plan such a pilgrimage-like journey?

Although Joan changed history’s course during just one particular era, her story has taken on the timeless quality of myth. During Nazi occupation of France, she became a symbol of the Resistance. Viewed more recently through the lens of feminism, this uneducated 17-year-old peasant’s ability to become a leader in a man’s world, and to stand firm, without defenders, before the immense power of the Church’s inquisitors, refusing to disavow her visions or to remain clothed in female garb, attracted another generation’s interest. At the same time, she has been embraced as a symbol by the right-wing political party Front National.


My itinerary in part tracks an inner journey. Many threads have consistently led me back to this young woman whose steely character emboldened a tottering nation. I am of French-Canadian ancestry and share in how that culture has often been under pressure on both sides of our northern border, as age-old conflicts between English and French echo. My mother was named after Saint Joan. In college, while helping to lead the gay and lesbian students of Georgetown University in a lawsuit against that Jesuit institution, I participated in an excruciating deposition and trial. Also during my undergraduate years, I wrote six poems in response to six paintings by Maurice Boutet de Monvel at the Corcoran Gallery depicting key scenes in Joan of Arc’s life.




Preparing to leave for France, I become aware that I’m leaving home, that I am home, and that home can feel like a safe womb. I float here with closed eyes, almost unconscious of my surroundings. So much can be taken for granted in one’s customary environment. So much remains truly unseen because we view it for the six thousandth time. For instance, I didn’t really understand how lush New England is until I traveled to the American Southwest; how poorly our country regulates urban sprawl before I drove out of European cities and entered their surrounding rural country-sides; how not every place in the United States was founded like Boston by a religious sect who hated pleasure, until I visited New Orleans. I wonder how Boston and Cambridge look through the eyes of the many tourists I see on weekdays in Harvard Square? (That being said, for many years after moving myself to the Boston area, I felt like a non-native, a visitor myself, because I grew up in a small town 80 miles to the west of our state’s capital. It took a long time before I stopped thinking upon touchdown at Logan Airport, “I’m in Boston,” and began thinking instead, “I’m home.”) Leaving today, I feel exited but frightened. The home I leave is tender and safe as a mother. I cut the cord and blast off inside the thrust of an airplane (the violence of which we are prevented from experiencing). We’ll land in a place where natives speak a language we only somewhat know, even after years of study.


In this case, however, I am returning to my father/motherland. But because I have done some genealogical research into my Riel and Joly (maternal) families’ histories, I know that my relationship with France is not so simple. It is possible that my patrilineal ancestor who arrived in Canada around 1696, Jean-Baptiste Riel, dit l’Irlande, was not French, but an Irishman who fought on the French side against the English in Ireland, and then changed his name to sound French. And the Joly ancestor of mine who originally emigrated to Canada may have in fact come from Belgium, not France.


And what might it mean, really, to be French? On the cusp of this trip, I realize how little I know about French history before Joan of Arc’s time, but assume that the Germanic tribes called the Franks must have intermarried as they moved west into what is now France. I used to think I was 100% French Canadian, but I since have gathered that no such “purity” exists, especially after recently hearing that one of my great great grandmothers was a converted Jew. (Since my husband is Jewish, I was thrilled to hear this, because it connects me with him in a new way.)

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We stay in Nancy because of its proximity to Joan of Arc’s birthplace, Domrémy, but I am unprepared for how compelling the capital of the former province of Lorraine is, especially the splendor of Place Stanislas and its environs. Lorraine remained independent from France until 1766. Its last duke, Stanislas, the former King of Poland (and Louis XV’s father-in-law), rebuilt the city’s center into a series of linked outdoor spaces separated by harmoniously ornamented buildings and over-the-top gilded Roccoco iron gates. I am struck by how the consistent use of one architectural element—rows of urns along rooftop balustrades—joins separate buildings into a unified effect. A peaceful allée, bordered by twin rows of lime trees, called Place de la Carrière, runs between the Ducal Palace and the Place Stanislas; this used to be a tilt-yard for jousting. Twice I see elderly gentlemen dressed in immaculate suits taking their solitary afternoon strolls alongside this green rectangle.


This first evening in France, we manage to snag the best outside seats of one of the restaurants along the south side of the Place Stanislas. I enjoy my supper of cold cream-of-pea soup with buttery croutons, lasagna, raspberry sorbet, and a local red wine. We linger over pots of tea as a crowd fills the square and a spectacular “Son et Lumière” show (that our hotel’s concierge just happened to mention!) begins, with animated multicolored lights projecting a ballet that is sometimes narrative and sometimes abstract over the details of the ornate buildings’ facades. I could not be happier nor more impressed. I like how the show combines 21st century elements (a depiction of people being connected in a web via lines that evokes computer programming) with voices and images from Nancy’s past. Over this nighttime scene, off to the southeast, hangs August’s slightly waned Blue Moon, only a few days past its fullness. I will never forget the rapture I feel looking at that yellow-white disc while the incomparable voice of Maria Callas completely fills Place Stanislas with the aria “Ebben? N'andro lontano” from La Wally (with which I am familiar only because of its prominence in the movie Philadelphia). I remember the Tom Hanks’ character in that film, a lawyer dying of AIDS who loved this aria, and cannot help but to think of my younger brother David, who died of AIDS at the age of 28. David spent his junior year of college in Nice. I finally have the chance to travel around this nation where he first visited, and I find myself haunted by snatches of this sad song in my mind over the course of our trip.


I spend a memorable afternoon in Nancy’s Musée des Beaux-Arts, located in one of the grand buildings bounding Place Stanislas. Of all the wonderful works of art found there, I must mention a few.


The Museum placed more than one painting of the Annunciation beside one another, and the curatorial commentary encourages me to compare them. In Carravaggio’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annunciation_(Caravaggio)), both the angel Gabriel and Mary shield their eyes, as if they feel shy, their different stations in the earthly and heavenly order rule out eye contact, or they are simply too overwhelmed by the transfer of grace taking place. This transfer is symbolized by the light seemingly running down his shoulder and arm to Mary’s face and hands. So much is implied by their reticence to look one another in the face; the moment is characterized deeply because of this. By contrast, in Barocci’s Annunciation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Barocci_Annunciation.jpg), a cat humorously sleeps in the foreground throughout the momentous event. Here, Mary’s slanted gaze seems defuse, neither taking in nor excluding sight of Gabriel as she appears to be viewing her future in a far-off daydream.


As my trip unfolds, I continue to see other paintings of the Annunciation, and the deliberate comparison made by the Musée des Beaux-Arts influences how, throughout the trip, I view and understand artwork depicting traditional Biblical events and Christian themes, including the many images of St. Joan I seek out. What I learned by reading and re-reading Marina Warner’s Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism about the many ways this saint is portrayed, and the reasons for the differences, now comes to bear on how deeply I understand and respond to what I see.


Eugène Delacroix’s large painting, La Bataille de Nancy (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Delacroix-Bataille-de-Nancy.JPG), impresses me with how little I know about important details of French history. It depicts a pivotal moment, in which Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, is one lance-thrust from being killed in battle. Not only did this slaying keep Lorraine free of Burgundian control, but it set the stage for the Hapsburgs to extend, though marriage, their territory into the Low Countries. The battle occurred in 1477, decades after Joan of Arc’s burning. I imagine she would have been thrilled to hear about the victory of the forces of René II, Duke of Lorraine, over the Burgundians.


Lastly, I must note my encounter with the remarkable paintings of Émile Friant (1863-1932). This artist was clearly an exponent of realism, and the people he painted look nearly lifelike. His self-portraits, his depiction of a glance between two lovers (Les Amoureux (Idylle sur la passerelle)), and the scene he creates of mourners rushing to a cemetery on All Saints' Day are unforgettable and make me want to learn more about him.


Back outside of the museum, I realize as I again turn the corner at the Ducal Palace how difficult it is to succeed at imagining the experiences of a historical figure by following her footsteps more than five hundred years later. So much has changed since Joan arrived in Nancy, summoned in 1429 to help the sick duke. The existing Palace was begun in 1502, long after Joan’s death, and even so was altered substantially in the 18th century. She never saw what I am seeing. However, as I read accounts of this encounter with the Duke of Lorraine, what comes through is Joan’s pluck and single-mindedness at the age of 17, even before she had convinced Robert de Baudricourt to escort her to the Dauphin’s court in Chinon. She stood her ground and then some: telling the ailing Duke that she had no knowledge of cures, and that he should leave his mistress and return to his wife. She concluded by asking him to send his son and heir with her south to the Dauphin!

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 Domremy and Steven Riel

On the way to Domrémy, we skirt the edge of Vaucouleurs (where Joan went to plead with Robert de Baudricourt) as we turn south from route D960 to D964. I can see what seems to be a castle, and I’m inwardly distressed that because of time constraints, this trip cannot include every important spot associated with her. (After we return to Massachusetts, I take to teasing my husband by saying we need to go on a second Joan of Arc trip to tie up loose ends.)


Along the road south, a brazen fox crosses the road ahead of us in broad daylight. Occasionally I see large hawks perched on fence posts alongside harvested fields.


When we get to tiny Domrémy, it is a little confusing, because the d’Arc home site is now obscured behind a walled enclosure. On the opposite side of the tourist’s parking lot, beyond the public bathrooms, a large, low meadow spreads beside the Meuse, where a flock of sheep rests beneath a tree with several trunks. The similarity of this early mid-morning pastoral scene to Maurice Boutet de Monvel’s paintings and drawings of Joan hearing her voices while tending sheep is powerful; it is as if nothing has changed on this stretch of land in over 500 years.

 Domremy and Steven Riel

We enter the museum enclosure and head straight to d’Arc home. The four rooms that stand used to be attached to additional rooms of a farmhouse built in the 18th century; for many years, Joan of Arc’s birthplace was used as that farm’s stable or outhouse! In 1818, the Vosges Département bought the property, and the added rooms were demolished to reveal only the d’Arc family’s habitation. The foundations of the larger structure remain.


Inside, we step onto floors made of stones measuring one square foot. The rooms are small, with stark walls. I can smell the low wooden beams. I try to imagine this place bustling with life, with furniture and some colorful items. At one point in the past, this structure was painted with scenes from her life.


Outside, in the garden, towards the neighboring church, I find where Joan claimed to have experienced her first vision. A plaque reads,


“Elle a déclaré que sur l’âge de XIII ans elle eut une voix de Dieu pour l’aider à se gouverner et la première fois eut grand peur et vint cette voix sur l’heure de midi environ et temps d’été dans le jardin de son père. Elle entendit la voix du côte droit vers l’église.”


Over the plaque stands a medium-sized chestnut tree, with a long, large heart-shaped scar where a lower branch obviously once grew. Even though I am alone, no strong emotions well up when I hunker down at this spot, which is the opposite of what I expected. I will be continually surprised during this trip by when feelings do and don’t come, and which do.


At the museum, we sit in a theatre and watch a “show” that consists faceless life-sized dummies representing historical figures (for example, the Dauphin Charles) who played important roles in the context into which Joan of Arc entered. Lights are cast on different dummies as a recorded voice tells us about their significance.


Across the main road from the tourist’s parking lot stands Antonin Mercié’s secular statue of Joan lifting her sword with the help of a woman representing France (http://www.vanderkrogt.net/statues/object.php?webpage=ST&record=frlo042). Marina Warner rightly contrasts this with André Allar’s religious statue (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Jeanne_et_ses_voix.jpg) just up on the hill outside the basilica overlooking Domrémy. If nothing else, this trip deepens my understanding of the many perspectives through which this saint is viewed, and the various political and cultural uses to which her images are put. The bitter parries between the anti-clericalist and Roman Catholic factions in France are still visible, if I connect the dots.


Next door we enter the squat stone Église St. Rémi, where Joan was baptized and had her First Communion. I learn that the orientation of the pews and altar has changed over the years, and that the church building has been expanded since her lifetime. There is an interesting unsigned article on the Internet about the church’s history, with images of how it looked in Joan’s time: http://tellthe.net/Eglise/. The font where Joan was baptized is displayed, as well as a statue of St. Margaret of Antioch before which it is said Joan prayed. When Joan was alive, the church’s front door faced her family’s home, near the spot where she had her first vision. According to her mother’s testimony, Joan spend “much of her time in church.” The girl also scolded the church warden when he forgot to ring the bells for Compline at the end of the working day.


Across the street from St. Rémi, I enter a large Joan of Arc gift shop. I greet the owner with the de rigieur “Bonjour” as she enters from a back room. The shelves are full of every imaginable object that could depict Joan of Arc or be somehow related to her story. I pause over more than one knickknack, but in the end (I am the only shopper in the store, so my movements and choices take on weight), I confirm my suspicion that my interests in her do not translate into bric-à-brac, and I somewhat sheepishly retreat empty-handed.


We drive the short distance alongside the ridge to the west and park at what is officially known as the Basilique Sainte Jeanne d’Arc de Domrémy, but also referred to as the Basilique du Bois-Chesnu (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Basilique_du_Bois_Ch%C3%AAnu.JPG). This large church was constructed between 1881 and 1934 on the wooded site where Joan reportedly had many visions. In the minds of many of her contemporaries this spot linked Joan with the prophesy of a virgin coming from such an oak wood to work miracles and liberate France. Ironically the Catholic Church constructed its most imposing monument to Joan at the same site about which, during Joan’s interrogation, she was questioned by inquisitors concerning her participation in annual rituals during which local girls hung flower garlands on a beech tree called “L’Arbre des Fées” on Laetare Sunday during Lent.


When we get out of our car on the windy ridge, I am surprised by how deserted the basilica seems. I realize that today is the first Monday of September, and the French have returned from their long summer vacations, so this might be a day when few are out and about.


Suddenly, powerful bells begin to ring, and ring, and ring. I look down at my watch: it is noon. I feel the force of their sound go through my body, as if my ribcage were somehow an echo of the church’s vaulted ceilings. I cannot help but to think back to the funeral of my Uncle Roland at St. Peter’s Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, when we pallbearers stood outside the front door holding his casket while the loud church bells rang for what seemed a very long time. It was as if those bells were marking time in space with sound—marking the end of a life, that of the oldest surviving male in a family. Today, although I left the Catholic Church decades ago, I’m reminded by the push and tug of these bells on my body of how difficult it was to separate from that tradition. My past connection with the Church was not merely one of abstract beliefs, but also was made up of sensual elements of ritual (music, incense, etc.) and architecture.


Because of the familiarity of this basilica’s architecture, I feel like I know this church. It was designed in the same period when many of the largest French-Canadian parishes in New England built similar structures. I have attended funerals inside those churches. For many years, I have been working on a long poem related to the demolition of Precious Blood Church in Holyoke, Massachusetts.


After some head-scratching, we find the entrance and climb the staircase up to the main sanctuary (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Basilique_Domr%C3%A9my-l-P.JPG). Murals by Lionel Royer depicting scenes from Joan of Arc’s life line the sanctuary’s walls (http://www.catholique-vosges.fr/basilique-sainte-jeanne-d-arc-de-domremy,2611), and his drawings for the stained glass windows (originally entered into a contest prepared for the Orléans Cathedral) were used by Charles Lorin of Chartres. Having just come from Église St. Rémi in the valley below, I am surprised to see that Royer exaggerated the size and grandness of that nearby church in his painting of Joan’s First Communion. In his paintings, Joan always has a golden halo, emphasizing her sainthood. I push a button to start an audio lecture for visitors, and a spider bites my finger. Strangely, the recording tells us (unless I misunderstand) that the basilica was planned so that we would first encounter the chapel dedicated to wounded soldiers before climbing the stairs to the sanctuary, because this is what the saint wanted. I doubt that Joan of Arc knew that this basilica would be built centuries after her death!?


As we leave the Basilique, I pick up a brochure that asks for money. 820,000 euros are needed for the roof alone. Except for us, the place is empty. This, too, reminds me of the situation faced by historically French-Canadian parishes in New England, whose churches are too expensive to be maintained by fewer and fewer parishioners, and are being sold or knocked down.

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We drive to the area where the Battle of Verdun (otherwise known as the “Hell of Verdun”) took place. What a profound and thought-provoking experience! I learn much more about the slaughter and misery that took place there, when humans had invented new war technology (machine guns, flame throwers, poison gas), but the generals were slow in changing their outmoded tactics accordingly. I had no idea how carefully the Germans planned their initial attack, nor how close the French came to defeat. France in desperate straits: the parallels with Joan of Arc’s times are obvious. Lacking sufficient railway lines to the battle area, the French improved a road into an effective supply line. The religious nature of the fight of the French nation against the Germans is clear: that supply line was dubbed the “Voie Sacrée.”


Because any time serving at Verdun was so horrible, the French Army rotated its troops so the suffering would be shared fairly. (Later in our trip, we visit a friend in her native village in Champagne. Her grandfather was killed at Verdun, and she shows us his name on the village’s memorial to WWI casualties. The massive casualties take on a personal dimension, not just something in a history book.)


Inside the Ossuaire de Douaumont, where the bones of 130,000 unknown combatants are housed, we come upon a gallery of portraits of veterans and those affected by the Battle of Verdun. In these photographs, taken long after World War I, the elderly subject holds a photograph either of himself as a youthful soldier, or of a loved one killed in the battle. In almost every case, no matter what the facial expression of the subject in the photograph, his or her eyes are full of tears, and seem to be envisioning the hell of the trenches. These images are incredibly moving.


At the gallery’s end I find a photograph of France’s President Mitterrand and Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl holding hands at the Ossuaire in 1984. The black-and-white image has the clean classical lines of tragedy, and makes me cry. Why can’t our leaders use foresight and try to imagine the waste of war, and reach out to one another towards their common humanity, before over 700,000 soldiers are killed in one battle? Here’s a video of the moment this hand-holding took place, while the band played La Marseillaise: http://www.ina.fr/histoire-et-conflits/autres-conflits/video/I00012031/francois-mitterrand-et-helmut-kohl-main-dans-la-main.fr.html.


Off of one hallway we enter a chapel. To the right I find a display case with the sign, “Vestiges provenant des églises des villages de Vaux-Fleury et Douaumont.” At least nine villages in Meuse were destroyed during World War I. The reverent and mournful manner in which they are described in museums at Verdun and Compiègne, and the photographs showing what they looked like before the war, remind me of four former towns in central Massachusetts near where I grew up. Dana, Greenwich, Prescott, and Enfield were destroyed and evacuated so they could be flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir. In the center of this display case, a white statue of Joan of Arc, with her hands folded above her sword and her gaze raised, stands out and seems to have been deliberately placed.

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Pausing before the west entrance of the immense structure that is Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral, I try to imagine what Joan must have thought when she first saw it. It is amazing to consider that a teenager born in a home of four small rooms in the tiny village of Domrémy led a prince here to be crowned King of France on July 17, 1429. The stained glass windows that were not destroyed by German shells during World War I are full of deep reds and blues. I wish I were a hummingbird so I could fly up and hover to get closer views. The throne sits on the left side of the altar; its blue cloth is patterned with fleurs-de-lys.


The Jewish painter Marc Chagall teamed with glass artists Charles Marq and Brigitte Simon to create three windows in the 1970s for the axial chapel (http://www.reims-cathedral.culture.fr/windows-chagall.html). One of the historical scenes included in the right window shows Joan of Arc, with one hand on her sword and the other lifting her banner, standing beside the Dauphin Charles as he is crowned. In this depiction, Joan does not kneel passively far from the Dauphin; here she is staring down at the crown, and almost seeming to bless the event.


The chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc (for photos, see:

<http://www.pbase.com/alastairneil/image/32156063> and: http://sedulia.blogs.com/photos/everywhere_else/joan_of_arc_chapel_at_reims_cathedral.html) disappoints me. It feels cold, monumental, and distant rather than intimate and vibrant. (I realize that it is unfair for me to expect that the Catholic Church spend money to decorate such a chapel with flowers or fabrics when I no longer make contributions as a member.) My reaction is probably influenced by the dull, gray light, and by how unapproachable the polychrome statue of Joan created by Prosper d’Epinay at first seems to me in that light: somewhat adamantine, with the saint’s closed eyes preventing me from connecting with her. But later I learn more about this statue. Its name is “Jeanne d’Arc au Sacre” (Joan of Arc at the Annointing and Coronation of the King). She rests on her sword and prays. Perhaps she closes her eyes to celebrate privately. This is Joan, in armor, strong, but also pious and reflective. I later read that the chapel is located in the spot where Joan stood during the ceremony, but I do not know if this is true. Regardless of my religious beliefs, I light a candle.


Reims surprises me. Perhaps this is because we stay at the Grand Hôtel Continental on the Place Drouet d’Erlon, which is lined with cafés crowded with college-aged patrons. The café upon which they descend in droves seems to change nightly—special prices for beer? Reims (which I learn is pronounced “Rance,” with what might sound to an American like the snooty “a” that is formed at the back of the roof of one’s mouth, rather than the twangy “a” pronounced inside one’s lower jaw) feels like a big city: a little dirty and a little dangerous. Perhaps if we stayed in another neighborhood, or if we had the time to visit the Basilique Saint-Rémi, where the Holy Ampulla used to consecrate French monarchs during their coronation ceremonies was housed (until it was publically destroyed by the French revolutionaries with a hammer in 1793), and see the southern part of Reims, my impression of the city might be different.


One funny GPS moment occurs when the device exclaims out of the blue from my husband’s backpack, “Lost satellite reception!” The GPS helps us constantly, but it also gets us off track a few times. It is completely useless whenever one encounters a detour, since it keeps recalculating to circle back to the place the detour started.

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Our visit to Compiègne does not focus on Joan of Arc as much as it could have. Since returning home, I have see the map in of 15th century Compiègne in Larissa Juliet Taylor’s biography of the saint, and perhaps could have found the spot where she was captured outside the town’s fortifications on the other side of the Oise River. We choose not to visit the remains of the medieval Saint-Louis Bridge which crossed the river near this site (later I learn that a copy of the more famous equestrian statue of Joan by Emmanuel Frémiet at the Place des Pyramides in Paris stands here across the river near where she was captured—not something our guidebook nor the map made available by the tourism information office in Compiègne even mentions).


Instead we have lunch just off the town square, which is dominated by a gingerbread-esque town hall, with three wooden “jacquemarts” (painted manikins of gentlemen) striking the time on the front of the bell tower. We take pictures there between the flower beds in front of a statue of Joan holding her banner. The inscription reads, “Je vray voir mes bons amys de Compiengne.”


We walk over to Saint-Jacques Church, where she prayed in 1430 on the morning of her capture. The Joan of Arc chapel here is warmed by the wood paneling and by its more human-scale white marble statue of the saint praying, sculpted by Marie d’Orléans, King Louis-Philippe’s daughter. (In Joan of Arc: Her Image in France and America, Nora M. Heimann and Laura Coyle describe the reasons that this image became so popular in France during the Bourbon Restoration, when it was even used in wallpaper and fabric patterns.) Above this statue, a window of dominated by shades of red, orange, and gold depicts Joan taking communion within Saint-Jacques. I light another candle.


We visit two other major sites in or near Compiègne. One is tucked in the woods: the Wagon de l’Armistice, a replica of the rail coach in the Germans had signed the armistice on November 11, 1918, and in which Hitler forced the French to surrender in the very same place in 1940. The immense enmity between the two nations is palpable here: the message written in raised letters on commemorative flagstones reads: Ici le 11 novembre 1918, succomba le criminal orgueil de l’Empire allemande….” The museum covers many aspects of the history of the two world wars in which the French and Germans battled. (The librarian in me is troubled by the lack of awareness the museum’s curators seem to have about the best way to display brittle historic newspapers while still preserving them.)


We spend most of the afternoon touring the Musée National du Château de Compiègne. This is the palace in which Louis XIV famously complained he had to live in a style befitting a peasant. Louis XV, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Napoleon I and Marie Louise, and Napoleon III and Eugénie all stayed here, with each monarch expanding and redecorating. I come away comprehending just how much Napoleon I was interested in establishing and expressing his power, and how little he was concerned with the ideals of the French Revolution.

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Our GPS gets us off track again at Soissons, and we arrive in Rouen later than we planned. Our hotel room is on the fourth floor, with a balcony at flying-buttresses-level, face to face with Rouen’s cathedral! A carousel circles below. We are clumsily successful at buying wine and a corkscrew at the nearby Monoplex, and lift our glasses on the balcony. As much as I revel in our spectacular view this evening, my body waits to see the Vieux Marché, where Joan was burned at the stake.

 Rouen and Steven Riel

We are experiencing a week of invariably sunny weather, so the next morning does not disappoint. We find the spot where Joan of Arc was killed behind the modern church, Église Sainte Jeanne d’Arc, in the Vieux Marché. In the place where the pyre stood, there is a little informal garden, with wispy flowers basking in the warm sunshine, and sparrows and pigeons looking for seeds. By contrast, I have come here with an imagination full of kindling, rope, and the crackling of incredibly painful fire. The only place to sit is on paving stones that form the border of the walkway. So this is the message I have come here to receive: after death, even a horrible, painful, unfair one, the warm sunshine still embraces the dirt, flowers still blossom, and birds still come and go. Having lost my brother 22 years ago, I know this, but encounter a gentle reminder.


Right nearby, against the side of the church, Joan’s agony is portrayed in a statue by Maxime Real de Sarte: http://www.vanderkrogt.net/statues/object.php?webpage=ST&record=frhn026. The young woman wears handcuffs linked by chain; flames reach up the folds of her cloak.


We visit the privately owned and extremely musty Musée Jeanne d’Arc (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mus%C3%A9e_Jeanne-d%27Arc) that faces the Vieux Marché. To enter, we must go through their store selling Joan of Arc knickknacks and postcards. As we pass what looks like it once was the ticket booth, I am reminded of a rundown amusement park I visited as a child. Inside is a series of tableaux of wax figures; the scenes trace Joan of Arc’s life. When we reach the next scene, we must push a button to start up the recorded lecture. In a few cases, the buttons do not work. There is no staff inside. The museum is full of interesting historical objects related to Joan of Arc. Once again, I am dismayed by the condition of the printed materials. The manner in which they are being displayed will accelerate their deterioration. As we are leaving I break down and buy a Joan of Arc mug and magnet. In part I want to support the museum (although I must admit that the mug will immediately become a cherished object in my kitchen). When we get back home, I learn that this museum has closed and that its contents will be auctioned off. Its owner offered to give it for free to an entity that would keep it open, but the city did not step forward, outraging French conservatives.


Since the church in the middle of the Vieux Marché is closed until later in the day, we walk up to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen. This institution owns a painting by George William Joy in which Joan of Arc sleeps in full armor on a bed of hay, while an angel embraces her metal-clad feet: https://www.artfinder.com/work/joan-of-arc-asleep-george-william-joy/>. It is possible that her wrists are handcuffed, i.e., she is in captivity, but I cannot tell for sure what the shiny band on her right wrist is.


I’m intrigued by the disturbing painting Les Énervés de Jumièges (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89nerv%C3%A9s_de_Jumi%C3%A8ges) by Évariste-Vital Luminais, and learn more about it once I return home. Two young men are shown floating in a small, flat, bier-like ship. They are recumbent, covered with a blanket, with their heads propped up on pillows. At their feet, a funereal vigil candle burns above a garland of roses. I wonder what is going on. Later I find out that this painting depicts the aftermath of a legendary revolt by King Clovis II’s two sons. Upon defeat, their punishment was to have the nerves in their legs burned. They asked to join a religious order and were sent downstream on the Seine to find one. The harshness of this story and image fits in with Joan’s burning, the pending lance-thrust into Charles the Bold’s torso, and with the horrors of Verdun’s trenches. The backdrop of much of what we are seeing in Northern France seems to be a history of violent power struggles.


After a delicious lunch in the Musée’s courtyard restaurant (I have cod (cabillaud) bordelaise, vegetable terrine, and potatoes dauphinoise), we head to the Joan of Arc Tower. A remnant of what was the much larger castle where she was imprisoned during her trial, this “keep” or main tower was where Joan was threatened with instruments of torture. Climbing the 122 spiral stone steps, I marvel at her decision to jump out of a nearby tower into the darkness in an attempt to escape. Halfway up the stairs, I examine an old, thick wooden door to a space off of the staircase. This door has a small window crossed with diagonal iron bars. Two iron bolts are drawn across its boards: one at shoulder-height, and one at shin-height. Two square key boxes are attached on its left front. It looks like the medieval version of something Houdini would face. I can almost hear Joan’s jailors turning their clanking keys. The tower contains a small but good museum, with displays both about Joan and about the castle itself. At the top of the stairs, I stand inside the attic, within the wooden cone that forms the fairy-tale-like roof, and peer up at a complicated system of wooden beams.


Since we have only a day in Rouen, we hurry back to the Vieux Marché. From the outside, the Église Sainte Jeanne d’Arc (http://www.cathedrale-rouen.net/patrimoine/visites/stejda.htm) reminds me of a huge gray tent, a spy plane, and a frigate with slate sails. Architecturally this building is a work of genius. Its designer, Louis Arretche, was alluding through the church’s shape to an overturned Viking ship in Normandy, as well as the flames which killed Joan. Once inside, I do not need to be told what he intended. I write, “We are inside the flame now. The ceiling goes up into a warmly lit, wooden, wave-shaped apex, but it does not hurt like fire. What’s emphasized are the lightness and weightlessness of fire.” And a wall of windows, both stained glass and gray, faces the site where Joan of Arc was burned. Some of the stained glass windows were retained from the church dedicated to St. Vincent that stood here until the Allied bombing in 1944. Surely the gray windows refer to the many stained glass windows destroyed in France during bombings in World War I and II. I light another candle before we leave.


Visiting the Cathedral of Rouen has much more to do with learning about the damage done to it by Allied bombing in 1944, and the restoration efforts since, than with reacting to the building’s beauty. Photographs of the bombed structure remind me of what I saw one weekend in Holyoke, Massachusetts when half of Precious Blood Church was knocked down, with the rest to follow that Monday. While some stained glass is still intact, many of the windows are filled with clear glass that gives the interior a gray cast.


Within the cathedral, eventually I come upon its Chapel of St. Joan of Arc (see photo labeled “Jesus Maria” in this site: http://saint-joan-of-arc.com/rouen.htm). The front of the altar shows a representation of her sword with the words Jesus and Maria above and below; these were the two words written on her battle standard. The statue of Joan behind the altar shows her chained to the stake and burning. Behind the statue are windows depicting scenes from her life: http://professor-moriarty.com/info/section/stained-glass/designers/france/ingrand-max-life-saint-joan-arc-rouen-cathedral. At the top of one, we see Charles being crowned, the draping of his cape repeating the shape of her banner as it is shown in a battle scene below, implying that his coronation was made possible (enfolded inside of and resting upon) her military successes. One of the windows says, “From the English in Homage.” When I get home, I learn more: the modern windows were created by Max Ingrand and installed in the 1950’s for the 500th anniversary of the Church’s “rehabilitation” of Joan. This particular window was donated as a gesture by (mostly Catholic?) British people to acknowledge their nation’s part in Joan’s execution: http://archive.catholicherald.co.uk/article/22nd-june-1956/5/the-double-ceremony-in-rouen. I am aware that the tour books do not give me the detailed information I want so I can understand what I encounter.


As dusk falls, I scurry over to the rear of Église St.Ouen to try to find the cemetery to which Joan was taken on May 23, 1431, when she was threatened with burning and consequently signed an abjuration. The area behind the church today is a park. People are still sitting and walking here even at this late hour. I am moderately nervous to be walking here by myself in the dark, and I do not find a cemetery, so I head back to the hotel through the old Norman streets.


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Inside the Forteresse Royale de Chinon, I have the same intuitive thoughts I had a year earlier while looking downstream the Thames from a window in the Medieval Palace in The Tower: I can feel how embattled the leader who governed from this fortress felt. Inside these walls perched on this hill, it is clear that Charles lived here to protect himself. The scale of opulence in these medieval royal palaces is much more modest than that of later structures like the Château de Compiègne; as France grew stronger as a nation, the wealth of its rulers grew apace.


The Great Hall where Joan of Arc first met Charles publicly has been torn down. The Forteresse’s guidebook reminds visitors that contrary to the mythic version of her first meeting with the Dauphin, they in fact had two initial meetings: one was in his apartments, where she met him and a small committee; and the second, after she had been to Poitiers to be examined by theologians, was in the Great Hall. Larissa Juliet Taylor suggests that the “miraculous” recognition by Joan of the Dauphin during their first public meeting in fact may have been made possible by the earlier private meeting. I am not sure what to think of this suggestion; I have always been so impressed by the single-minded certainty of Joan’s actions, and her statements during her trial, that it is difficult for me to believe she was lying. I should re-read her testimony.


Inside the only remaining wing of the royal quarters, historical films are shown. I’m disappointed that the Joan of Arc film doesn’t seem to be working. There are two rooms dedicated to museum collections related to Joan of Arc. In one, I see a postcard in which she is shown standing behind a poilu (what the French called their infantrymen in World War I—based on the word “hairy”). I read about how her image was used in propaganda to encourage the war effort. This links her in my mind back to Verdun and the Voie Sacrée.

Ste. Catherine de Fierbois


Why is it so important for me to take us out of our way, driving through the agricultural countryside of the Loire Valley to find this village too obscure to be found on most maps? For centuries, this hamlet has been a stopping point for pilgrims heading to Spain along the “Way of St. James.” I’ve read that upon arrival here some pilgrims were given gold rings that symbolized Ste. Catherine’s marriage to God. I have searched for this place because Joan stayed here on her way to Chinon, and then later sent back instructions to the clergy in the local church to look for a sword for her near their altar. A rusted sword was found buried behind the altar, with five crosses on it. Joan claimed her voices had told her it was there. During her trial, she would not divulge to her captors the location of this special sword. (According to one story, she broke it driving prostitutes away from the French army’s camp.)

 Ste Catherine de Fierbois

Do I believe in miracles? Once we finally arrive at Ste. Catherine de Fierbois, I’m amazed by how little fuss the village makes about its only claim to fame. A statue of Joan graces the central square, but this is true of many other communes in France. There is a plaque nearby referring to her sword being found there. But like a bloodhound, I’m not satisfied I have found what I’ve driven over hill and dale to see. “Behind the altar”—is the location of the miracle behind the church? To one side is a wall, and to the other, a barking dog. I try the church door and find it open. Aha! Inside, I find a niche indicating where the sword was found (behind where the altar formerly stood) and marble plaques explaining its significance. Also, a painted statue of St. Catherine stands on a pedestal; before it Joan must have prayed as well.

 Ste Catherine de Fierbois

The niche seems a little hokey to me, but I also consider the question, “Just how should the Catholic Church indicate, on the material plane, that a miracle happened here?” The inexplicable story remains much larger than a bread-oven-like hole in a church wall.

Ste Catherine de Fierbois

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Unfortunately we must rush away from the Loire Valley to return our rental car on time at the Charles de Gaulle Airport, so we can only stop briefly in Orléans. We take a wrong turn on the intercity highway, so have a longer walk down the Rue de la République than we planned, but we reach the bronze equestrian statue of Joan in the impressively wide Place du Martroi: http://www.pointurier.org/travel/europe/france/orleans/slides/005.html. Circling the statue to examine it closely, I am saddened to see how many heads of the figures in the bas-reliefs by Gabriel-Vital Dubray adorning the statue’s pedestal have been broken off, presumably by vandals. The scenes depicted in the bas-reliefs are those I have come to expect: the major events in Joan’s story. These are conveyed with compelling, somewhat magisterial horizontal energy that reminds me of Greek drama with its chorus, but the damage distracts. This statue commemorates the importance of Joan’s role in the liberation of the city from the siege of the English, yet it is not protected from vandals nor seems to merit repair.


Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Of all the works of art in this truly spectacular museum, two portray Joan of Arc, and one that does not expands my understanding of other images of her.


The piece that generates the most insight for me is George Desvalières’ painting L’Ascension du Poilu: http://www.musee-orsay.fr/fr/collections/catalogue-des-oeuvres/notice.html?no_cache=1&zoom=1&tx_damzoom_pi1%5Bzoom%5D=0&tx_damzoom_pi1%5BxmlId%5D=009594&tx_damzoom_pi1%5Bback%5D=%2Ffr%2Fcollections%2Fcatalogue-des-oeuvres%2Fnotice.html%3Fno_cache%3D1%26nnumid%3D009594%26cHash%3D3408779fbc. Mixing imagery of Joan of Arc’s burning and her military triumphs with that of World War I’s trench warfare and modern machinery (the locomotive), the painting incorporates allusions that I would not have fully grasped before this trip. I appreciate how much I have learned over these two weeks.


Emmanuel Frémiet’s small statue “Jeanne d’Arc” on display may simply be a smaller version of the larger one at the Place des Pyramides. In any case, I’m struck by how masculine she looks in this depiction, standing up in the stirrups, with a grim and purposeful expression. The horse’s genitals are prominent, also emphasizing male energy and force.


Finally, I’m arrested by what I at first think is a painting of Joan by Alphonse Osbert (Vision), but then learn later it actually portrays Ste. Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris: http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/painting/commentaire_id/vision-3030.html?tx_commentaire_pi1%5BpidLi%5D=509&tx_commentaire_pi1%5Bfrom%5D=841&cHash=f385ce7af1. Regardless of that I doubt that Osbert could have created this work without being aware of similar images of Joan of Arc in a meadow, among sheep, experiencing visions (here is Boutet de Monvel’s, about which I have written a poem: http://www.maidofheaven.com/joanofarc_pictures2c3.asp). Like Joan, Ste. Geneviève reported having visions and visitations from saints and angels. For me, Osbert’s painting renders beautifully the in-betweenness of being on earth while experiencing the divine. Ste. Geneviève is luminous—light goes through her. Is it dawn or sundown? In either case, it is between day and night, and the pinkish penumbra hovering above the tree tops seems to form a halo around the earth. What a powerful image, and one that helps me journey deeper towards the mystery of Joan’s inspiration.


As I walk east from the Musée towards our hotel in the Marais, I wonder if any of my ancestors walked along the Seine in just the same spot 400 years ago, or before. Or if they lived elsewhere, could they have been too poor to ever visit Paris? In the plaza in front of the Hôtel de Ville, I come upon a wonderful open-air exhibition about the independence of African nations from colonial powers, and about African culture. Most of these nations were previously ruled by France and maintain strong economic and cultural ties with their former conquerors. Through my French heritage, I am connected to a much larger community of common history, culture, and language. Joan of Arc’s story is one that the majority of us share. Isolated as a Franco-American in my day-to-day life in Massachusetts, I can either largely ignore this relationship or paddle upstream to maintain it. Standing near the French people of African descent looking at the exhibition beside me, I am certain I want to be related to them and their histories, not out of sentimentality, but because I recognize the potential such connections could have for the future: both for myself personally, and for a collective future of peoples inhabiting a significant portion of the world’s land surface as we address racism, global warming (what is done to the earth by French speakers in Quebec or Madagascar affects the livelihoods of French speakers in sub-Saharan Africa), etc. I want to be part of la Francophonie in its broadest sense, as long as it stays cognizant of its potential to oppress post-colonial peoples.

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