This painting, by the French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage (c. 1848–1884), depicts a scene of the teenage Jeanne d’Arc (or Joan of Arc, c. 1412-1431). It is set in the time before she began her famous journey in 1428 to aid the Dauphin, Charles (later King Charles VII of France, r. 1422/1429-1461), against King Henry VI of England and his Burgundian allies. Details of Jeanne’s pre-adventure childhood can be found in testimony that she later gave to her English captors. Court records indicate that on February 21, 1431, Jeanne stated, “she was born in the village of Domrémy, which is one with the village of Greux… she replied that her father’s name was Jacques d’Arc, and her mother’s Isabelle” (The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc, First Public Session). At Domrémy, Jeanne lived on the frontier battle lines between the Dauphin’s forces and those of the hostile Burgundians—the latter group once forced Jeanne and her family to flee from their home, an experience that no doubt encouraged the young girl’s ardent support for the Dauphin. Nevertheless, to Jeanne, her decision to support the Dauphin was not one of mere personal preference or politics. Instead, according to Jeanne d’Arc, the miraculous aid that she rendered to the Dauphin was orchestrated at the direct command and guidance of God, who sent saints and angels to guide Jeanne on her journey.
Jeanne reportedly first began having mystic religious visions when she was around thirteen years old, and these frequently-appearing sounds and sights were allegedly what eventually convinced Jeanne to go fight for the Dauphin’s cause. According to Jeanne, her most frequent holy messengers were the spirits of St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret of Antioch, but it was the archangel, Michael, who apparently made first contact when Jeanne’s visions originally began at the age of thirteen. Jeanne d’Arc testified about these saints and angels on February 27, 1431, and her statements were written down in the court record:
“Asked whether the voice which spoke to her was that of an angel, or of a saint, male or female, or straight from God, she answered that the voice was of St. Catherine and of St. Margaret. And their heads were crowned in rich and precious fashion with beautiful crowns…Asked which was the first voice which came to her when she was about thirteen, she answered that it was St. Michael whom she saw before her eyes; and he was not alone, but accompanied by many angels from heaven” (The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc, Fourth Public Session).
This encounter between Jeanne d’Arc and the archangel Michael is what inspired Jules Bastien-Lepage’s painting. The setting and time of day for the painting, if interpreted by Jeanne’s testimony given on February 22, 1431, would be “towards noon, in summer, in her father’s garden” (The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc, Second Public Session). Floating behind Jeanne, hovering on the left side of the canvas, are three ghostly figures. There, Archangel Michael can be found, accompanied by St. Margaret and St. Catherine. Of course, the English and Burgundian interrogators (whom she battled against) did not believe the young mystic’s claims of holy visions and divine inspiration when they questioned her in 1431. Jeanne d’Arc was only nineteen years old when she was executed by being burned to death on May 30, 1431. Her execution, and the charge of heresy that inspired it, was always controversial, even since the 15th century. The Catholic Church has since come out against her execution, formally canonizing Jeanne d’Arc as a true saint in 1920.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc, compiled by Pierre Champion and W. P. Barret, with further translation from Coley Taylor and Ruth H. Kerr. Gotham House, Inc. 1932.