Friday, April 16, 2010

The Saint Goes Marching On

Magnet # 218:  Biltmore Aerial Photo

Material:  Acrylic

Purchased By:  Me

It was on this day in 1920 that the long-suffering Joan of Arc finally received her due, almost 500 years after her horrible death at the hands of the English. At St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, in a grand ceremony, she was added to the cannon of saints.

Pretty much everyone is familiar with the story of Joan of Arc, the teenage peasant girl who believed she was hearing the voices of saints telling her to help King Charles VII drive the English out of France.  She convinced the King to allow her to command his troops to victory until she was captured and burned at the stake by the English for witchcraft.  She was so brave in the face of death that some started to believe she truly was a martyred saint.  But not everyone knows how the legend of Joan of Arc lived on.  Within 24 years, an ecclesiastical court retried her case at the insistence of her family and King Charles VII.  This led to Pope Callistus III declaring that Joan of Arc had been innocent and admonishing those who had killed her.  For awhile, she was beloved by many of France's citizens and writers and was considered to be a messenger from God.  But the English continued to revile her, and even Shakespeare himself disparaged Joan as a wicked, calculating tool of the Devil in his Henry VI, part I.  As time passed, Joan was forgotten in many parts of France, but in towns she had spent time, such as Orleans, which she'd freed from the English, she continued to be held in good esteem.  In fact, a procession in her honor was held there each year on May 8.  Over the years, Joan would appear in plays and poems, sometimes favorably, sometimes not, but during the French Revolution, attempts were made to destroy her legacy completely.  The leaders of the conflict had statues and crosses of the historic figure destroyed and the few personal articles she'd owned that were still left burned.  Thanks to their determination, Joan of Arc fell out of the public consciousness and could have been forgotten completely.  But it was not to be.  The story of Joan of Arc was brought back into the spotlight by, of all people, Napoleon Bonaparte.  He wanted a heroic folk figure to further his agenda, and Joan suited him perfectly.  Thanks to him, she became a national heroine and a recognized symbol of French patriotism.  From then on, she would remain beloved by the public.  Soon, the Catholic Church realized that Joan should indeed be considered for sainthood.  She was beautified in 1909 and made a saint just over a decade later.  Her feast now falls on May 30, when she was killed.  At last, this figure who had suffered the abandonment of a king to whom she was loyal, an unfair trial, and a gruesome death received the respect and adoration she had earned.

So just what does the Maid of Orleans have to do with this magnet from the Biltmore? Well, if you squint really hard, you might be able to see the two statues that are placed just outside the stairwell on the second story.  I didn't know about them before I was touring the house and was pretty jolted when I saw what almost looked like a person outside of the window out of the corner of my eye.  It turns out George Vanderbilt had wanted the statues of two French soldiers, one male, one female, placed there when he built the home.  He ended up choosing Louis IX for the male, but his choices of a female were obviously limited.  But at Biltmore and all over modern culture, Saint Joan lives on, an inspiration to patriots, feminists, and even those who are interested in the supernatural.  It's fitting that she has joined the ranks of the saints whom she once claimed spoke to her, and I hope her legend never fades away again.

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