Sunday, March 1, 2009

The appeal of a girl in armor

While putting on lipstick in front of my bedroom mirror the other day, I caught a glimpse of a postcard I’d stuck there months ago: a picture of a knight’s armor from an exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I’d grown up visiting these bodiless knights in the huge, high-ceilinged exhibit hall at the museum. It was a favorite place for my father, brother, and me, and it became a ritual destination for me nearly every time I went home; I was thrilled when after a several year renovation project, the museum opened again this past summer, and I could introduce my husband to these knights of my childhood.

Whenever I went to similar art exhibits, Renaissance Fairs, gift shops, or any place that specialized in soldiers, be it hobby stores or cigar shops, I always eyed the knights and considered buying one for my Dad as an homage to our shared time with the steadfast knights in Cleveland. Over the years he’s amassed a small collection of knights due to this shared fascination of ours.

So the knight postcard, sent to me by my parents this past summer after their visit to the Armor Court at CMA, was a continuation of this shared interest, and nothing unusual. But on this particular day I happened to notice that this postcard was next to a postcard of Joan of Arc, this one more recently tucked into the mirror's shoulder. Accident? I certainly don't remember placing them there together on purpose. But there they were, among other prayer cards, postcards, birthday cards, poems and Chinese fortunes, my two knights: an anonymous German knight, and a painting of Joan in her armor, with white butterflies surrounding her. I had not intentionally placed these two images next to each other, but there they were, brother and sister, staring back at me.

It hit me like a steel helmet: of course I would feel an affinity with Joan and her armor! I grew up admiring these knights, so why wouldn’t I, in my early adulthood, equally or even more enthusiastically, admire a girl in armor?

(Indeed, I’m always amazed that I didn’t know of Joan earlier. Many women and men that I talk with about Joan of Arc knew of her as children; they costumed as her, wrote book reports about her, prayed to her then. Not me. I attended public school and went to catechism classes one night a week; although we did study the saints, somehow Joan escaped me. I chose Rose as my confirmation name simply because I thought the name was beautiful. I can’t tell you a thing about Saint Rose herself. I was wholly without holiness in my youth, and was religious only in the sense of feeling deep guilt and fear—of God, of sin, of disappointing my parents. I prayed, I confessed, I was confirmed, and I attended mass faithfully each week until I was 18. Then I went to college, and literature, theater, and art became my religion).

Joan’s armor is impossible to ignore as the key to her appeal. I know it’s obvious, but it is always reconfirmed as her primary identity when I talk with people about her, whether they know her from popular culture or from their religious education. Few can get past her armor, literally. In one way, it’s not fair to her, because she is much more than a soldier. On the other hand, it’s precisely why we remember her and stand in awe. A teenage girl, in the Middle Ages, secures her own armor, horse, banners, and army? How is that possible? We are captured by the enormity of her military and gender-bending accomplishments before we even understand or acknowledge her religiosity.

And that’s where I feel it is unfair to her, that we think of her as Joan the Soldier rather than or before we think of Joan the Saint. Because she believed she was following her God, and He was telling her to crown the King. If you would ask her what she was most proud of, she’d say attending the coronation of the Dauphin.

Her task was done. She had listened, and she had done God’s will.

But most of us don’t think about this or marvel at this aspect as readily. It’s more appealing, somehow, to consider the concrete: she wore armor, she carried a sword, she rode a horse, she won battles.

Despite how unbelievable it is, this we can believe.

It’s beyond the scope of our imaginations, however, to imagine or believe that a person could hear the voices of Saints (in her case, Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, and Saint Michael) and believe in them, follow them, to her death.

This scares us. And because we are all afraid of our own death, because we are, most of us, afraid of what we cannot see, afraid of the mystical and all things owing to faith rather than fact, we’d much rather think of armor. What appealed to me about the knights as a child—strength, protection, fearlessness, boldness—still appeals to me about Joan. She’s immortal in her armor. Her statues say more about her as a warrior than they do as a Saint.

I do have a copy of a painting of her that my mother bought me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art gift shop. It’s Joan standing beneath a tree in her peasant dress, looking up; faintly you see the shapes of floating deities—her Saints—in the branches. She looks mystical. Although it’s a beautiful painting, it’s haunting, too. I don’t know if I find as much—comfort? Strength? Inspiration?—from that painting as I do images of her with her sword in hand. It’s more intimidating or unsettling to me to see a young woman convening with angels than to see her ready to fight.
That’s too bad, but that’s the truth.

Which is why, when I saw this editorial in response to the Joan of Arc article in the Times-Picayune, published a few days after Molly Reid's article about the parade, I could not disagree with this writer’s sentiments. We perhaps embrace Joan’s defiance more than her faith because it’s more familiar to us. Here’s what she said:

Defiant? It depends

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Re: "Strange bedphellows," Lagniappe, Jan. 2.

I read with great interest Molly Reid's article about the new Krewe of St. Joan of Arc -- a terrific idea -- but before the Maid of Orleans is entirely recast as a post-modern figure, a few words of clarification are in order.

First, St. Joan's story is not "legend," but well-documented history. The full transcript of her trial and testimony exists.

Second, St. Joan was not "burned . . . as a witch," but as a heretic by an English-dominated kangaroo court whose politically motivated verdict was reversed shortly after her death.

And finally, to say that St. Joan "represents defiance" is to stand on its head her loyalty and obedience to God and her king.

Mary Ramirez
New Orleans

I think there will always be fans of Joan who take her as symbol for what they want to be. As a girl, I wanted armor, I suppose, and as a woman, I want it, albeit more symbolically these days (although, let's face it, walking the streets of New Orleans in armor might be wise!). I also, however, want faith, so I do find myself more and more drawn to Joan’s faith as much as to her teenage confidence and fortitude.

However, to deny that she was defiant—to her own father, to the British, to nearly any authority other than her God and her King—is to deny an important part of Joan.

I think the image that says Joan of Arc best to me is the one that sits next to the knight’s armor postcard. It’s Joan with her armor and wooden cross that she held at her execution, with white butterflies swirling around her. She’s a girl, she’s a saint, she’s a soldier, she’s a martyr. She is all these things. And we should not forget any of them when we think of her.