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 this prior post.  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.


joan of arc by lenepveu at the pantheon

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!

Joan of Arc Lenepveu Pantheon

Joan of Arc Lenepveu Pantheon

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:


joan of arc-lenepveu-pantheon-3

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.


joan of arc by lenepveu at the pantheon

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.

Photographs by Tijmen Stam
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12 Comments to “Joan of Arc at the Panthéon”

  1. Marty says:

    I just started reading Mark Twain’s novel about Joan of Arc. I haven’t finished but so far it is very good. The chapter about the poem is hilarious!

  2. Catherine Delors says:

    And to you to, Matterhorn! I wrote a new post on Jehanne this year.

  3. Matterhorn says:

    How wonderful! Happy Feast Day!

  4. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you for the recommendation, Agnes!

  5. Try Pamela Marcantel’s novel ” An Army of Angels, A Novel of Joan of Arc”. It was published about 12 years ago, and I loved it. It is still available at Amazon

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks to all for your great comments:

    Sandra – I am too intimidated by the subject, or not brave enough, to give it a try at this time. 
    Elisa – Yes, I had heard of Mark Twain’s novel, though I have not read it. It is not his best known work. Do you recommend it?
    Julianne, Elena – Thank you! It is always a joy to write about Jehanne, and a challenge to produce anything remotely worthy of her. Elena, congratulations 
    Franklin – True, Jehanne, while very much a woman of her time, raises issues that resonate in any era. Thanks for bringing up these quotations of Lincoln and reminding us of the religious inspiration of his quest for justice.
  7. Elisa says:

    In response to Sandra’s question: Mark Twain wrote a novel about Jeanne and spent some time researching before penning it.

  8. Thank you, Catherine, for such a magnificent tribute to La Pucelle!

  9. Franklin Michaels says:

    Dear Catherine –

    I was captured by this post, rereading first your wonderful treatment from last year, and then Christine de Pizan’s Le Ditie de Jehanne d’Arc. Talk about the embodiment of the late Middle Ages in terms of her view of being the embodiment of God’s grace, and yet sounding almost like Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address: slavery was the great national sin, which required the spilling of blood in atonement, by armies executing the will of God, because to deny that is to deny the will of God.

    Tell me if I’ve got it wrong, but it seems as though the idea of the embodiment of God’s will in “the Maid” – while remaining deeply Medieval – is not (except of course for the angel thing) so far removed from Lincoln, four centuries later. As Lincoln put it before the New Jersey Senate en route to his first inauguration:

    “I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.”

    “A Second Look at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural,” Lucus E. Morel, professor of political science at Washington and Lee University,

    And if you really want to see the poetry of the speech fully explored, check out “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech?,” by Gary Wills, The Atlantic, September, 1999 Wills best summarizes how he sees Lincoln’s theology, in this:

    “He did not begin the war with abolition as a goal. It was necessary for military purposes by the time of his limited and conditional Emancipation Proclamation, and then in the opportunity given Congress for initiating the Thirteenth Amendment. The force that led him was, he came to believe, divine.”

    Ring any bells?

    “As he wrote to Mrs. Horace Mann, when she asked for an immediate emancipation of all slave children in the spring of 1864, ‘I have not the power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has, and that, as it seems, He wills to do it.'”

  10. Thank you for the links to the primary documents! Jeanne’s is a fascinating story.

  11. Thank you for this post about St. Joan at the Pantheon. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring Pantheon during one of my trips to Paris–it is so emblematic of the historical relationship between the Church and the State before, during, and after the Revolution.

  12. That’s a wonderful account, Catherine. Have you considered writing a biographical novel about her? (Or has an excellent one already been written?)

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