Reading visual art: 52 The capital crime of cross-dressing

Annie Louisa Swynnerton (1844-1933), Joan of Arc (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In yesterday’s look at the fluidity of gender in classical mythology, and its depictions in later paintings, its centrepiece was the very masculine hero Hercules dressed in women’s clothes. More than a millennium later, in the more oppressive Middle Ages, going in the opposite direction was one of the charges resulting in the execution of Joan of Arc.

Ever since she was burnt at the stake in 1431, she has been a semi-legendary figure symbolising the fight for independence of the French people and nation. Since 1920, there has been a French National celebration of Joan of Arc and nationalism on the second Sunday in May, close to her saint’s day of 30 May.

Known in English as Joan of Arc, her real name is the subject of debate. She spelt her first name as Jehanne, the mediaeval version of the modern Jeanne, and most modern French sources refer to her as Jeanne d’Arc, not that she came from a place named Arc, but that her father’s surname was something like Darc. Joan herself stated that she was known by her mother’s surname, which would have either made her Jehanne Romée or de Vouthon. Forgive me if I refer to her simply as Joan of Arc, for all its inaccuracies.

Joan was born in the French village of Domrémy, in the north east of France, in about 1412, a time when much of northern France was controlled by King Henry VI of England. When she was about thirteen years old, she experienced her first vision, in which saints charged her to drive the English out of France and bring the Dauphin, the future French King Charles VII, to Reims for his coronation.

When she was about sixteen, she started on this mission, eventually managing to be taken to the Dauphin. Following a commission of inquiry into her life, she joined French forces trying to disperse and defeat the English, who were besieging the French city of Orléans, and she was instrumental in the rapid French victory there, forcing the English to retreat.

Joan was given a strategic role in the French forces, and this led to a series of French victories enabling the liberation of Reims, where the Dauphin was crowned on 17 July 1429. On 29 December, Joan and her family were ennobled in recognition of her personal valour, and for her military successes.

After a short truce between the French and English, Joan was back in action at Compiègne in 1430, where she was captured by Burgundian forces, who handed her over to the English in return for a substantial ransom. She was transferred to Rouen, where she was tried for heresy, ostensibly under the procedures of the Inquisition. Almost every aspect of the trial was rigged or flawed, and she was additionally charged with ‘cross-dressing’ in male military clothing.

The following year Joan was eventually condemned to death, and was burnt at the stake in Rouen on 30 May 1431. To ensure that nothing remained, the English burned her body twice more, and cast her ashes into the River Seine.

A few artists have painted series to tell this story. Probably the most accessible is that in the Panthéon in Paris, by Jules Eugène Lenepveu, shown in the following four images.

Jules Eugène Lenepveu (1819-1898), Joan of Arc Murals 1 (1886-90), mural, Panthéon de Paris, Paris. Image by Tijmen Stam, via Wikimedia Commons.

Lenepveu’s first scene shows the calling of Joan, who appears older than her thirteen years. She looks surprised, away from the angelic vision we can see behind her. She is tending the family’s flock of sheep, although this could be effectively in the ‘garden’ too. She has been spinning, and still holds her distaff in her left hand. Her spindle has fallen to the ground in front of her. The winged angel behind her appears to be female, and is passing a sword towards Joan’s right hand. Also behind Joan is an older figure who is shearing one of the sheep.

Jules Eugène Lenepveu (1819-1898), Joan of Arc Murals 2 (1886-90), mural, Panthéon de Paris, Paris. Image by Tijmen Stam, via Wikimedia Commons.

The second shows Joan leading the French forces against the English, who were laying siege to the French city of Orléans. There had been controversy in Joan’s trial as to whether she had used weapons against the English; Lenepveu hedges here, showing her holding a sword in her right hand, and brandishing the Dauphin’s standard to rally the French, in the role which she described of herself. She’s wearing a suit of plate armour, which she was provided with in preparation for this operation. As this would have been designed to fit a man, this was part of the case against her for ‘cross-dressing’ in men’s clothes.

Jules Eugène Lenepveu (1819-1898), Joan of Arc Murals 3 (1886-90), mural, Panthéon de Paris, Paris. Image by Tijmen Stam, via Wikimedia Commons.

The third scene is of the coronation of King Charles VII in Reims Cathedral. The King is here just about to be crowned, as Joan stands to the right, looking up to heaven, and holding the same sword and standard as at Orléans. Enabling this moment was Joan’s supreme achievement.

Jules Eugène Lenepveu (1819-1898), Joan of Arc Murals 4 (1886-90), mural, Panthéon de Paris, Paris. Image by Tijmen Stam, via Wikimedia Commons.

The final scene is inevitably Joan’s execution in Rouen, as she kisses the crucifix passed to her. Additional bundles of firewood are being heaped around her, and a brand is already lit and ready to set fire to the wood as soon as the priest has stepped clear; Joan had asked Fathers Martin Ladvenu and Isambart de la Pierre to do her that service.

Hermann Stilke (1803–1860), Joan of Arc in Battle (1843), centre panel in The Life of Joan of Arc Triptych, oil on canvas, 135 x 146 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1843, Hermann Stilke painted a fine triptych showing scenes from her life, in which Joan of Arc in Battle forms the centre panel. Joan is shown in the middle of a cavalry mêlée in which real weapons are being used in anger to kill and maim. She doesn’t ride side-saddle, but astride her white charger, wearing armour made for a woman, and holding only a standard, without weapons.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII, in Rheims Cathedral (1854), oil on canvas, 240 x 178 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres chose to paint Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII, in Reims Cathedral (1854). She stands close to the crown, resplendent in full armour and holding a standard, the two-pointed oriflamme embroidered for her by the women of Orléans, in her right hand. Rather than covering her head, her helmet (and armoured gloves) have been removed and placed by her feet. Her armour appears to have been tailored for a very contemporary and fashionable figure, with a tiny waist. She carries a large sword by her left leg, and an axe on her right hip. Ingres also accords her a fine halo.

At the left edge is an equerry, who is depicted as Ingres’ self portrait. At the lower edge of the painting is a lettered tablet, containing a quotation from Émile Deschamps:
et son bucher se change on trône dans le cieux (and in heaven, her stake is transformed into a throne).

The image of Joan of Arc started to interest the Pre-Raphaelites in Britain too, with its mixture of romantic legend, the mediaeval, and a presumably beautiful woman.

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Joan of Arc (1865), oil on canvas, 82 × 62 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

John Everett Millais put Joan of Arc (1865) into a very female and black suit of armour, and had her holding her sword and looking up to heaven. The artist gives no clues as to when in her life this was intended to represent: her face suggests it is a moment of reflection, perhaps awaiting divine guidance, but there is a touch of sadness in that face too. Millais’ limited range of colours helps make this a powerful portrait.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Joan of Arc Kissing the Sword of Deliverance (1863), oil on canvas, 61.2 × 53.2 cm, Musée d’art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg (MAMCS), Strasbourg, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The first of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s two paintings, this showing Joan of Arc Kissing the Sword of Deliverance and completed in 1863, slightly preceded Millais’. Joan is clearly kneeling at an altar – the candle, and feet from a crucifix are good clues – where she stares up and into the future, while pressing her lips to the sword. This is also one of the few paintings of Joan which shows her wearing jewellery.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Joan of Arc (1882), oil on panel, 52.7 × 45.7 cm, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Rossetti completed his second painting of Joan of Arc just a few days before his death on 9 April 1882. In recomposing his motif, Rossetti has dispensed with the location and jewellery, and here shows Joan, labelled according to her mediaeval nickname, with her heavy sword resting against the side of her face and head.

Jean-Jacques Scherrer (1855–1916), Entry of Joan of Arc into Orléans (1887), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

With revanchism moderating into national pride towards the end of the nineteenth century, Jean-Jacques Scherrer painted the Entry of Joan of Arc into Orléans in 1887, so expressing an almost iconic view of her success. Although it has some historical basis, the reality seems rather more complex and less romantic.

Soon after arriving at Orléans on 29 April 1429, a fleet of boats sailed from the besieged city along the River Loire to the French forces. These were loaded with supplies, Joan of Arc, and about two hundred French soldiers. The wind suddenly reversed after nightfall, blowing the boats back into Orléans. Joan entered the city, while it was still under siege by the British, at about 2000 that evening, well after dark.

Over the following days, Joan paraded periodically through the streets of the city to raise morale. She also tried to alter the tactics used by the city’s defenders. On 1 May, she left the city to survey the English forces, and finally left Orléans when the English allowed a strong French convoy to enter the city on 4 May. It wasn’t until 8 May that the English finally abandoned their siege and withdrew, allowing Orléans to start returning to normal again.

Harold Piffard (1867-1938), Joan of Arc (date not known), oil on canvas, 91.5 × 72.2 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Harold Piffard’s portrait of Joan of Arc from about 1900 follows the contemporary conventions, showing her bearing a standard and wearing a fine suit of black armour.

William Blake Richmond (1842–1921), St Joan of Arc (date not known), pencil and pastel on buff paper, 71.3 × 56 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

William Blake Richmond’s pastel portrait of St Joan of Arc from about the same time is a contrast with its more symbolist approach. Joan’s face appears made up, with lipstick and honed eyebrows and eyelashes, and her armour fancifully faired and scooped into wings.

Annie Louisa Swynnerton (1844-1933), Joan of Arc (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

My final painting is, I think, one of the most moving and effective: Annie Swynnerton’s undated Joan of Arc. This combines the imagery of religious devotion, visions, and military service for God and her country. Unusually her eyes are not staring in shock, but closed. She is praying, a huge and heavy battle sword between her fingers. In the sky is a rainbow, a reminder of a much earlier covenant between God and man.

After the execution of Joan of Arc in 1431, the war between England and France smouldered on for another twenty-two years. A posthumous retrial of Joan was then opened, and Joan was declared innocent on 7 July 1456. During the religious unrest in the sixteenth century, she became a symbol of the Catholic League, and in 1803 Napoleon made her a national symbol of France.

It wasn’t really until the nineteenth century that her case was pressed; the new Bishop of Orléans initiated a fresh campaign for her recognition in 1849, and she was finally beatified in 1909, almost half a millenium after her execution.

Over that period, the image of Joan of Arc has been used by the French nation, the Catholic church, Napoleon, revanchists, romantics, feminists, and many others. Sadly its most recent adopters have been some of the extreme right political parties in France. I wonder how many of them have also embraced the idea of her cross-dressing as a man, as she was charged.