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Joan of Arc: Righteous Fury, Holy Suffering

Art about Joan of Arc allows us to recontextualise faith and find a new grammar for martyrdom and womanhood.


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The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Carl Theodor Dreyer

RIGHTEOUS FURY


Since her martyrdom in 1431, Patron Saint of France, Joan of Arc, has gripped the hearts of women and artists worldwide, immortalized by flames and the camera. Neatly divided by Jacques Rivette’s 1994 epic Joan the Maid I & II, her cinematic presence is always cut into two halves of one whole, her military campaigns and visions then her imprisonment and burning: her righteous fury and her holy suffering. Some, like Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc or Bresson’s Trial of Joan of Arc focus solely on her imprisonment and execution, while others, like Rivette’s, Fleming’s, or Preminger’s sloppy Saint Joan seek to portray both sides. Rarely, however, do any adaptations seek to only portray the battles. Joan is her martyrdom, her mythology is hinged on her death, and built around her suffering.


It is hard to look at Joan’s fate and believe that she was delivered by God. Her righteous fury began at only sixteen. Following saintly visions and a crusade to re-establish French sovereignty, she was betrayed by her homeland. Imprisoned by the English, the Catholic church gave her a choice: renounce your visions, remove your men’s dress, or suffer execution. Any repentant abjuration was short-lived. In a moment violently portrayed in Rivette’s Joan the Maid II: The Prisons, she relapses after being nearly raped by her guards – an act that sought to control her and to rob her of her virginity. In an unjust ultimatum, she opted to protect herself from the cruelty of men by sacrificing herself at the stake. For her relapsed heresy she was burned, producing her mythology and countless depictions of her crucial moment, canonized by her pain.


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Anna Karina visits the cinema to watch Dreyer's masterpiece in Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Jean-Luc Godard

Cinema’s most enigmatic problem child, Jean-Luc Godard, glimpsed Joan in the seat of France’s modern woman in Vivre Sa Vie (1962). Trading his usual satire for ennui, he excavates the role that class and gender have in propagating the oppressive structure of prostitution in contemporary Paris. Split into twelve vignettes, we follow Nana into the sacrificial void, then, at his most didactic, Godard points at the camera – the viewer – and screams “Evil has only mutated!” Joan of Arc died in 1431, and spent her final moments begging for a cross so that she could love her god till the end. Twenty years after her death, she finally completed her saintly task, freeing France at the cost of her life. She came as an angel of fire, sweeping through the land, igniting the hearts of the people, and burning out English colonization. She died a martyr on a stage, a warrior of Christ wielding a blade: a New New Testament of a holy revolt. However, Dreyer’s masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) paints a humanist Joan, 19, intelligent, strong in her convictions, who isn’t mythologized as a hero but suffers as a victim. Her suffering is the centrepiece of the work, monumentally enhanced by the performance of its lead actress, Marie Falconetti, whose soul intertwines with Joan’s to portray something soft – melancholic – yet horrifying. Joan’s titular passion, much like Jesus’ before her, is born from a suffering and anger thrust upon her by the men she loved; her god, her country. 30 years later, in Vivre Sa Vie, Nana goes to the cinema to watch Dreyer’s classic. Godard frames, composes and directs Anna Karina to become Falconetti, and Nana, Joan. She embodies the very suffering Joan experiences, internalizing the unholy fire and gendered torture Joan faced. Nana doesn’t so much watch The Passion of Joan of Arc as she does stare into her reflection, shedding the same restricted tears Falconetti gifted Joan in her depiction, because in all ways the four women are the same.


In 1981 Polish director Andrzej Żuławski released an unhinged metaphor for his own divorce, Possession. Over time, Żuławski’s film has garnered a ravenous and hyper-fixated audience, largely enamoured by lead star Isabelle Adjani’s performance as Anna. Whilst Mark – Anna’s husband – cultivates a Madonna/Whore complex and Żuławski projects a self-festered image of the hysterical woman, Adjani’s performance transcends their narratives. Anna’s behaviour is erratic, volatile, extreme, and glittered with an esoteric fervour; she is the caged fury let loose, representing a rage internalized by trauma. She kills and maims in a cleansing destruction whilst garnering devotion: chaos is her virtue, one that frees her and her followers from the marginalization of order. Even as Mark becomes slowly undone he is comparatively contained - she destroys whilst he attempts to save. Those who see through Mark’s eyes view him as patient and responsible, ordered, whilst those who see through Anna’s have lived and wished for her chaos. The subtlety of Mark’s abuse is his insistence of sexual possession, his obsession and control over who or what Anna has fucked, whilst simultaneously admitting and committing his own infidelity with their son’s teacher, the Madonna reflection of Anna’s Whore. Anna and Mark’s final consummation is a violent union drenched in blood and fire, welded by mutual destruction. The trauma - the merger - rampaging in holy anger, finally removes the leeches that bled her of her autonomy. Anna is an emotion seldom shown, so often repressed and reserved by the need to retain face, and her fury becomes righteous once ultimately unleashed.


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Possession (1981), Andrzej Żuławski

HOLY SUFFERING


In 2018, Hunter Schafer posted (then subsequently deleted) a drawn diagram that dissected her perception of womanhood. She garnered backlash from TERFs for her claims in the diagram that her gender was influenced by the need to be used by men, as objectified by men. Yet, so frequently, it is this gendered perception that women internalize, be it through coquette hyper-femininity or through their relationship with Christianity, resonating with images of an organized structure hinged on the oppression of women and empowerment of men. To get to heaven one must suffer the burden of their decisions: salvation comes through pain and sacrifice.


In 2023, composer Kristin Hayter announced the retirement of her moniker 'Lingua Ignota' and the music made under it, stating that this part of her life was now over. It was a six year journey that began in 2017 with the release of her first EP, Let the Evil of His Own Lips Cover Him, and an emotional exploration of grief, rage, suffering and enlightenment through religious and esoteric art. Her music oscillated over a phonic duality. Songs like Fragrant is My Many Flower’d Crown paint a woman who dons the softness of petals whilst swinging a hammer of wrath against all who’ve wronged her. She ends the album Caligula by repeating one line, “All I want is boundless love//All I know is violence.” On her fourth and final project as Lingua Ignota, Sinner Get Ready, she replaced her screams with whimpers and traded the bombastic, explosive sounds for softer harmonies carried by piano with blues/folk elements. Throughout Sinner Get Ready she makes reference to the abuse she faced from Daughters frontman, Alexis Marshall, whilst comparing him to God as an oppressive sadist. Her newest project under 'Reverend Kristin Michael Hayter', SAVED!, redeems Caligula’s famous lines; “The lord shall mend your broken heart//And hold your aching soul//His boundless love will make you whole.” She no longer only knows violence, and has found boundless love and the warmth of God, whatever that may mean to her.


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Lingua Ignota / Kristin Michael Hayter

Hayter’s journey is one that many women face, looking to the heavens for more than the violence they feel was divinely ordained: Joan, Hayter, Anna, Nana, Mother Jeanne of The Devils, Sister Cathleen from Novitiate, Mother Mary, all victims of a patriarchy that seeks to control them sexually. Mary, in particular, has become a symbol of this oppression, whose body was simultaneously divinely used and repressed. She is the ideal woman in the eyes of patriarchy – the virgin child bearer, womb without the taint of sex, the mother whose duty is solely motherhood, suffering to bare the death of her son. For her pain, she is rewarded nothing real – a place at the side of her abuser - and has only been granted personhood by those who look to her now in relation to their own oppression, permitting her her own suffering beyond the suffering of her son. Schafer’s perception of her agony was gender affirming in the same way Mary’s oppression is intrinsically linked to her womanhood. Her torment is the womanhood created by men. Suffering is a given identity, but also a community built on the warmth acquired from knowing misery doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are others who feel what they feel, and that feeling is given purpose via the augurs of their pain. Like Joan of Arc holding the broken sticks of her pyre in the shape of a cross as holy fire engulfs her, if all you ever feel is violence then violence begins to feel like boundless love.


Joan lived two lives, Holy suffering is only one part of the whole, and her faith gave her a point at which she could direct her righteous fury. As a personification of oppression rather than a multi-faceted structure, God can be targeted as the progenitor of pain. Belief becomes iconoclastic, one in which where God exists, Christianity is acquiesced, but God and his followers are villains, perpetrators of suffering and so targets of vengeance. God is the face of man, embodied by a single entity – a sponge of deserved hate seeking to rip the rib of Adam from its abdomen by first admitting it is there. The nun, the martyr, the holy warrior: images of women who have suffered beneath the collective face of religious oppression. The worship of these images is not really a love for God but a love for those who suffer and a relation to their suffering, reflected in the self. Like Nana watching Joan on screen, religious iconography becomes a mirror to stare into and find past iterations of yourself, and a desire to comfort them. As Ethel Cain notoriously wrote on Sun Bleached Flies, “God loves you, but not enough to save you.” God does love you – the torment is how he shows it. God loved Joan and killing her is how he showed it.

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