What Did Jeanne d'Arc Look Like?

Solving a Mystery: Gay Icons and History, Transgender & Intersex

Article: By Patricia Nell Warren. October 18, 2008

GLBT historians love to claim Jeanne as lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. I’m one of those who think she was a case of androgen insensitivity syndrome — burned at the stake in 1431 for her “crime” of flouting Catholic rules on gender and women’s clothing. The Maid is still such a towering figure in world history that we would all love to know what she looked like. But most historians assure us that no likeness of Jeanne has survived, whether done from memory or real life.

The absence of a portrait seems fitting for a heroine whose very remains vanished in that raging fire at the stake. The Maid died during one of Europe’s grimmest times — the Hundred Years’ War, when England and France struggled for control of France. Jeanne has no grave. No personal mementos of hers have survived either, except a few letters with her signature. Nobody knows for sure where her armor and weapons went. Nothing is left but the idea of her. Or… is there something that many historians have missed?

We do have a few descriptions, recorded in documents of her time by people who knew her. She was said to be short, stocky, sunbrowned, with dark eyes, a red birthmark behind her left ear, and a light feminine voice. Her black hair was bobbed short. There are two little drawings surviving from her time. On a 1431 document written during her interrogation, a clerk did a doodle in the margin — a girl in a skirt with a sword. He would have seen Jeanne in the courtroom in Rouen, where she was condemned to death. Meanwhile, in the village where Jeanne grew up, a local artist dabbed an impromptu fresco on a wall of the Notre Dame de Bermont chapel, showing a girl in armor kneeling in prayer. It is generally accepted as representing Jeanne the Maid.

But both drawings are crude, amateurish, a shade above the grade-school stick figure. At that time, the stiff formalism of medieval art was softening into Renaissance realism, giving us portraits with an almost photographic allure. A photograph of Jeanne is what we’d like but don’t have. Or do we?

I have a theory about where Jeanne’s face can be seen. Recently I started studying the life of Rene Duke of Anjou, one of the most important figures in Jeanne’s story. The House of Anjou was perhaps the most powerful family of medieval times. Rene was brother-in-law to Charles VII, the heir to the French throne that Jeanne aimed to get crowned. Rene’s mother, Yolande of Anjou, lobbied Charles to put Jeanne at the head of his army. Rene himself fought at Jeanne’s side in some of the battles against the English. So, for Rene, Jeanne was the spiritual figurehead that would put his family back in royal power in France.

Not long ago, I had the spooky experience of looking at the online jpg of a famous altarpiece that Duke Rene commissioned in 1474 and feeling my hair stand on end as I realized that one of its painted figures might be Jeanne the Maid. Rene knew Jeanne so well that he was rumored by Jeanne’s enemies to be her lover. He would have known exactly what she looked like.

If my theory is right, this is a portrait of Jeanne — the only one we have — painted from living memory, not too long after her death.

Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d'Aix-en-Provence. Le Buisson ardent, triptyque de Nicolas Froment
Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d'Aix-en-Provence. Le Buisson ardent, triptyque de Nicolas Froment

Haunted by Memories

A poignant story lurks behind the creation of this painting.

After the English were driven from France in 1455, the Catholic Church was so embarrassed by the injustice of Jeanne’s execution that they had to void her conviction in 1457. After that, things calmed down. Exhausted from long years of fighting, Rene and his second wife Jeanne de Laval left their northern domains and went down to southern France to find some peace and quiet in Rene’s county of Provence. It was as far as they could get from the war-torn landscapes of the north, still reeking with all the atrocities and executions that happened there.

There in sunny Provence, in his mid-60s, perhaps to keep his mind off the old memories, Rene busied himself with cultural pleasures. The war had left him less wealthy, but it had also moved him towards greater liberalism and questioning in his thinking. During his final years, he patronized avant-garde scientists and explorers, and created a body of art that celebrated a heterodox spirituality. He collected rare and beautiful Grail cups. He finished building the basilica that housed the remains of Mary Magdalene, who had spent the last years of her life in Provence and was now its patron saint. Corresponding with his friends the Medicis in Italy, Rene collaborated with them on collecting ancient pagan and early Christian writings that were now viewed as “heresy,” and placing them in the West’s first public library so anybody could read them.

But Rene must have been haunted by memories. While he hadn’t witnessed Jeanne’s horrible execution, he surely imagined it. Even his new wife was a reminder — she had evidently been named after Jeanne, as the daughter of Guy, Count of Laval. Guy was one of Rene’s old comrades in the king’s army and another ardent admirer of Jeanne.

In 1474, perhaps sensing that he had only a few more years to live, Rene decided to commission a magnificent altarpiece that was to be a monument to his family’s long history and greatness. He gave the job to his court painter, Nicholas Froment. But Rene, too, was a talented painter, so it’s possible that both their brushes flowed the rich hand-ground oil pigments onto the wood panels.

At first glance, the painting revealed a cliché scene of noble patrons adoring the Mother Mary and Child. In the two side panels, Rene and his wife Jeanne kneeled at prayer, flanked by half-a-dozen haloed saints.

By their trademark symbols, the six saints can be identified as prominent figures in Angevin tradition. Behind Rene stands Mary Magdalene herself, the House of Anjou’s patroness, holding her jar of balm and touching Rene’s back protectively with her free hand. To her right are St. Anthony of Egypt and St. Maurice, both patrons of the Knights Templar, with whom the Angevins were allied before the order’s downfall in 1307. On one side of Jeanne de Laval stands St. John the Evangelist, patron of Gnostic tradition, with the two-headed dragon springing from his chalice. To Jeanne’s left, there’s St. Patrick, Bishop of Ireland, who started his church career in Provence, in association with the Magdalene tradition.

But medieval art loved to layer itself with multi-meanings. I think that, on another level, this prayer scene is a memorial to deceased relatives and allies who fought for Angevin greatness, and for whom Rene still grieved. The whole mood is somber, with a black background broken only by royal-red hangings behind the figures. St. Maurice, the young knight, is wearing the three white plumes of an English Prince of Wales, so he surely represents Rene’s cherished grandson, Edward — son of his daughter Margaret, who married Henry VI of England as part of the treaty that ended the Hundred Years’ War. Edward was a Prince of Wales — and he was killed at age 17, just three years before, in 1471. Rene was devastated by Edward’s death — as he was by the 1453 death of his adored first wife, Isabelle of Lorraine (probably represented by the Magdalene figure) and the 1430 death of his greatuncle Cardinal Louis of Bar, a powerful churchman who supported the French side during the Avignon papacy, and the anti-popes during the Great Schism (represented by the bishop figure).

The figure that intrigues me most is the young female saint who stands directly behind Jeanne de Laval. Wearing a martyr’s crown, she holds the martyr’s palm frond in her right hand. Most art historians identify this figure as St. Catherine of Alexandria, another big favorite of the Templars. But the torture wheel that would conclusively identify her as St. Catherine is absent.

So whom did this mystery girl memorialize, for Rene?

Solving the Mystery?

There are clues. With her left hand she holds a giant broadsword in a scabbard wrapped with red velvet. The weapon brings to mind Jeanne’s description of the celebrated Sword of St. Catherine that she often carried into battle. During her trial in 1430-31, Jeanne was questioned persistently about this weapon, since it was church policy to discourage women from fighting. She testified that the sword had a scabbard made of red velvet. It isn’t known what happened to this fabled weapon after Jeanne’s death — she wasn’t carrying it when she was captured. But Rene surely knew what the sword looked like.

Another clue is what the girl’s hands are doing. According to modern handwriting experts who studied the signatures on her letters, Jeanne was left-handed. If so, Rene would have known this too. Like Prince Edward on the opposite panel, this girl is holding her sword with its point downward — a symbolic way of saying that the war is over. But Edward holds his sword in his fighting hand, his right, whereas the mystery girl’s fighting hand — the one that holds the sword — appears to be her left hand.

The girl’s crown alludes to the traditional crown that symbolized martyrdom — and Rene would definitely consider Jeanne a martyr, albeit one who was murdered by the Church itself, not by enemies of the Church. However, the crown could also denote Jeanne’s rank in the peerage. In 1429, after Jeanne got Charles VI crowned king of France, he rewarded her by creating her Countess of Lys, though she never used the title. I note that the crown is similar to — but less grand than — the one worn by Jeanne de Laval, who was a Duchess and therefore higher in rank than Jeanne.

One detail doesn’t jibe. Rene would know that Jeanne had dark hair. But this girl has light brown hair. However, if the painters had given her the correct hair color, her head would disappear into the dark background they wanted. So the lighter hair may be a case of artistic license, to make her head stand out.

Another odd detail: the girl is wearing a woman’s gown, not men’s clothes. But contrary to myth, Jeanne often shifted back to women’s wear when she wasn’t fighting or traveling on horseback. This fact is documented by an eyewitness commentary of her time, Quadam puella (A Certain Girl), that was widely circulated in the 15th century. It suggests that her real-life dress habits were known to many, explaining why so many of the posthumous imaginary portraits of Jeanne show her in a flowing gown, not armor.

Taking a Risk

If this figure is Jeanne, Rene was going out on a limb by putting a halo around her head. By 1474, people all over Europe were acclaiming her a saint, but the Church was leery of her and did not formally beatify her until 1909. Yet the Duke had moved into such a left-field world view that he probably didn’t give a damn what the Church thought. Indeed, the prayer book in front of him is closed — a detail that suggests he no longer believed in orthodox Catholic doctrine.

All eight faces in the prayer scene are warmly realistic. The Duke and his wife evidently sat for these portraits. For the six memorialized relatives and allies, Rene and Froment may have searched for suitable models among local people. If so, Rene’s talent search may have located a maid of Provence who resembled Jeanne at age 19. Her face is calm; like her sword, she is at rest.

After Froment finished the altarpiece in 1476, Rene gave it to the Carmelite church in Aix-en-Provence. Four years later, the Duke was dead. Today the work hangs in the Aix cathedral, and is considered one of the great masterpieces of its time. But it may also be the Duke’s way of having the last word on Jeanne, thumbing his nose at the Church that killed her, enshrining her among the holy — if heterodox — patrons of his family for all time.

If this figure is Jeanne, then we LGBT people can add one more real face to our own long and tumultuous history.

Article: By Patricia Nell Warren. October 18, 2008