November 20, 2007

Of Saints, Angels, and Politicians: A consideration of Jean Bastien-Lepage's Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc, 1879
Jules Bastien-Lepage (French, 1848–1884)
Oil on canvas; 100 x 110 in. (254 x 279.4 cm)
Gift of Erwin Davis, 1889 (89.21.1)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City, New York

My friend Carol has given me an arduous task. The first part I volunteered for by suggesting that we collaborate on this project from our unique points of view. The second part was more than I bargained for! After refreshing my memory concerning Joan of Arc's story I had to introduce myself to Saints Catherine and Margret and upon completing that I was then engaged in revisiting the theology of saints and angels. I feel as if I am preparing for an undergraduate paper! (Here's hoping that what follows is not too sophomoric.)

Allow me to begin by offering my philistine observations of this painting. I would love to see this marvelous work personally. I somehow believe seeing it on a computer monitor does it a severe disservice. One thing that immediately catches my eye is the distinct difference in the figure of Joan and everything else in the painting. Joan is painted with an almost photographic clarity while everything else is impressionistic and ethereal. It would seem the message Bastien-Lepage is communicating through this is the clarity of purpose in Joan's life. There is also a note of urgency about her as the stool she was apparently sitting upon has been overturned in her pursuit of the path being laid before her by the voices of Michael, Margret and Catherine. I note that the path also stands out with unusual clarity (a clear path to follow?) even though it may wind with unexpected turns. The images of Michael, Margret and Catherine very nearly blend into the background. It is as if they are a part of the scenery until you look more closely and discover them "hiding" there. This is, I think, a clever representation of the influences upon Joan's upbringing as well as a commentary upon the forces that shape all of our lives; they tend to blend into the background yet exert great influence on the trajectory of our lives. A beautiful and meaning-filled message in paint.

Now to the theological and pastoral considerations of this subject. Let's talk first about Saints. Do I believe in them? Unequivocally yes. Hebrews 11 and 12 speak of our being "surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses". (On this note, Carol, you must find your way to Birmingham, AL and tour the Chapel of Beeson Divinity School for a marvelous rendering of this scripture). However, my protestant heritage and Zwinglian penchant for iconoclastic thinking prevents me from embracing the notion of long departed saints speaking any word to me other than through their example. I cannot imagine pursuing a course of action because Adoniram Judson instructed me to do so, but I can easily imagine following his courageous example because, like him, I too am called to be a follower of Christ. So, imagining Joan acting on the direction of these voices borders on the absurd for me. After all, people that hear voices of the long departed are either in the looney bin, taking serious medications, or giving psychic readings at Lilly Dale.

The only recollection I have from the Bible of the dead speaking with the living is that of Samuel being called upon by the witch of Endor at the request of King Saul (See 1 Samuel 28). It was not a happy reunion. So, can it happen? Yes. Is it a course of action recommended to us by Scripture? No.

I am aware, if dimly, that in the Catholic church and tradition there is the belief and practice of praying to the saints for help and direction. This is certainly reflected in Bastien-Lepage's painting and, apparently, in the experience of Joan of Arc. Candidly, I find this to be incredible on two fronts. First, as I have already mentioned, the notion of someone who is dead communicating with me in the here and now is not beyond possibility but it is beyond the norm. Secondly, my protestant background questions the efficacy of such an exercise. My theology informs me that through the sacrifice made by Jesus upon the cross there is no longer any wall of separation between me and my Creator. If I can go directly to the source why would I rely on or request the help of some lesser intermediary? As a follower of Jesus I am promised the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life, "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all thing and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you."(John 14:26). Having the very presence of God with me to guide and sustain me causes me to question why anyone would rely on something less.

As for angels, they have enjoyed a resurgence of interest over the last couple of decades. Our increasingly secular culture seems to be feeling that "God shaped void" of which Augustine speaks and is seeking to fill it with a variety of spiritual substitutes. Angels are a more palatable commodity than many things found in the modern spiritual marketplace. Typically imagined in feminine tenderness as a caregiver or rendered powerfully masculine as a defender and protector, the notion of "angel" brings to mind benevolent faces, gentle wings, and able defenders. This is so far afield from the Hebrew concept of angel that it is difficult to bridge the gap. Certainly there are Cherubim and Seraphim with wings, but most times angels appeared to individuals, in both the Old and New Testaments, as humans. What caused them to stand apart was the message they brought. In fact, the word "angel" means messenger.

Karl Barth has given the most extensive treatment of the subject of angels in any recent theology textbook and describes the topic as "the most remarkable and difficult of all." There are numerous references to angels in Scripture, however, the nature of those references is not very helpful in developing an understanding of angels. "Every reference to angels is incidental to some other topic. They are not treated in themselves. God's revelation never aims at informing us regarding the nature of angels. When they are mentioned, it is always in order to inform us further about God, what He does, and how He does it." (Millard J. Erikson, Christian Theology, p. 434).

But what about Joan? She was apparently examined by the theologians in residence and was passed as sanely sincere in her pursuit of a path defined for her by long dead saints and a warrior angel. Is it possible that she had an encounter with the divine that shaped her destiny or is it possible that she became an unwitting, if powerful, pawn in a game of thrones that consumed her brief and bright life? In truth, both possibilities exist here. It is even within the realm of reason that both possibilities came together in Joan's life.

Carol, in communicating with me about this particular painting, mentioned "the conflation of religion and politics", a nice turn of phrase for an historically bad arrangement. It seems to be a particularly cogent point for the right understanding of this painting as well as the right understanding of many bad chapters in human history, both ancient and modern.

In Joan's life the vision of the warrior angel Michael holding forth a sword for her to take up combined with the martyred saints, Catherine and Margret, seem to play into her psyche. Michael clearly points toward a military role most unusual for a woman. Catherine, martyred for out thinking the political heads of her day, and Margret, martyred for maintaining her virginity against the advances of a powerful magistrate, both point toward her too young death. It is entirely possible that those in power saw in Joan an opportunity to play upon the naive faith of a desperate people to move them to action in accordance with their plans for power. It is not the first time this has been done, nor will it be the last time.

In our own day there are concerns about just this sort of thing happening within American Christianity. There are those who seem bent on imposing their view of the Christian faith, not only on other Christians, but also, upon all who fall under the reach of their influence. Are there truths we should uphold? Absolutely! Some of the truths which find their source in the understanding of the existence of God are firmly planted in the founding documents of our nation. Truths like, "all men are created equal", and "the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are "endowed by our creator" upon all men everywhere. However, these very truths uphold the right of others to disbelieve. It is a perilous balancing act but one which must be maintained at all costs. "Baptists know from experience that when the interests of the church are no broader than the interests of the state, the church loses its leverage to reconcile those divisions that condemn the world to perpetual strife. The distinctive Baptist understanding of religious liberty is not some denominational oddity, a mere hiccup on the side of history. Rather it offers an essential contribution to the development of a post-9/11 geopolitic by enshrining the insight that the awesome spiritual power of religion may not be linked to the equally awesome temporal power of the state if any semblance of freedom is to survive." (Bill Hull, The Meaning of the Baptist Experience, p. 21, emphasis added)

Abraham Lincoln famously said, "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right" This is indeed the great challenge of our present day and it will be the great challenge of every coming day, to be on God's side. May He grant us grace to follow so closely as to always be found on His side.


Brother Maynard said...

Good post - the artwork really caught my attention and drew me in; I like the concept of "reviewing" a painting in this way.

I share a discomfort with seeing saints as intermediaries, but perhaps don't find it quite as fantastical that they would appear to someone in a vision — in the sense that God shows the figure of the saint to communicate something specific to that person (as you allude in your post), not that the saint "appears" of their own volition (however that works from their current state).

The interesting thing to me about the Witch of Endor is not so much that Samuel appeared as that the Witch was shocked that it was really him and not her familiar spirit. She knows immediately by this that her "client" is King Saul. The other notable appearance of mortals once dead would be the Transfiguration... which is a little different, but also the same: I don't think the point is so much that Jesus needed a conference as that something specific is communicated by who appears, viz. Moses and Elijah.

Lots to think about, and just enough to remind me that God tends to press the bounds of the ordinary manner of things. ;^)

John said...

Bro. Maynard,

Thanks for stopping by. Good catch on the appearance of Moses and Elijah to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Don't know how that one slipped my memory (getting older?).

For me, this painting really opened up the question of how God speaks. My biblical/protestant theology informs me that there is general revelation (nature, universal taboos, etc.) and special revelation (Jesus, scripture, theophanies). I still struggle with the notion of a long dead saint giving any credible guidance beyond the suggestive power of the example of their lives. It just doesn't fit into any biblical theology I can find. The notion of following the example and being inspired to live as they lived resonates well with me. I'm just not anticipating Judson, Carey, or Brainerd speaking with me personally anytime soon.

Looking forward to the Advent project. Carol and I have something in the works for the season as well. Excited about this one.


Carol L. Douglas said...

Brother Maynard, awesome observation about the Transfiguration. I think we missed it because we think of Jesus as a special case (rightly so). I also appreciate your observation about the Witch of Endor’s recognition that this was not her “familiar” because I do think that many manifestations are spiritual deceptions hitting the recipient where they are most vulnerable. I do believe in the existence of angels—they are Biblical, as John pointed out—and have painted them as awesome (as in dread mixed with veneration) as well as gentle, depending on the context.

We live in a Charismatic age and one thing that struck me about Joan of Arc is that she was having what we 20th century American Christians would call a Charismatic experience. That doesn’t surprise me. We feel as if history is flying apart in front of us, but Joan’s contemporaries were living in equally perilous times.

Although I am fundamentally Protestant in my viewpoint, I also experience the miraculous. I do not believe that the gifts of the spirit departed after the Biblical period and are now back because we are in the Last Days. I don’t know why we are seeing a rise in visions, tongues, prophecy. From Matthew 24:36-44 I take that we are to be vigilant but not presume any special knowledge.

The Catholic Church has an unusual term for Cardinals—“Princes of the Church.” It is a relic of a time when the Church was deeply entwined with the dynastic rulers of Europe. Joan lived at the pinnacle of this. It was a hideous time—papal schism, inquisition, endless bloody war, and famine, plague, and peasant uprisings. I am not surprised that Joan had visions; I’m actually more surprised that Jesus didn’t return then and there and strike the princes of Europe dead.

I have been mulling over the question of why God would have bothered to intervene over the French throne, since the French and English candidates were equally bad. I have tried casting the historical facts many ways with no answer. That’s the most troublesome thing to me—if God actually intervened, wouldn’t it have been to some purpose?

em2histbuff33 said...

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Gwendolyn said...

I've been pondering my response to your post, John. I am glad to see that Carol got there first with a reminder that miracles and gifts of the spirit did not end with the end of the apostolic age!

Frankly, between the two of you, you've written enough to keep me busy for a week, if I were so foolish as to write my own responses!

However, I would like to point out that religious painting has a vocabulary all its own. I cannot say that this painting is 'religious' in that sense, but I think it would be wise to read it, at one level, the way one reads an icon.

I suggest for your consideration one icon and one book.

Have a look at Andrei Rublev's icon The Old Testament Trinity (The Hospitality of Abraham) and Henri Nouwen's book, Praying with Icons.

I know they have to be way outside your comfort zone (sorry!) but worth it.

In the painting of Joan of Arc, I see hints at themes that persist throughout the ages: vision, calling / vocation, God's intervention, redemption... and in Carol's description of the examination of Joan: honesty, humility, faithfulness.

So I don't see this painting as primarily about saints or the efficacy of praying to saints -- or even the nature of saints -- but about the many ways that God is the God of history.

Carol's point about God's reason for intervening between bad and bad is interesting. Perhaps the intervention was not about giving power to those who had titular claim to it, but about giving hope to a group that felt lost or hopeless? I don't know. Just my imagination running wild again.

At any rate, thanks for an interesting and provocative discussion!

John said...


Thanks for the thought-full reply. First, let me say there is no need for an apology concerning something that may stretch me beyond my comfort zone. In my book that is a good thing. I will gladly take a look at the references you recommend. (I am a large fan of Nouwen.)

I am in agreement with Carol that the spiritual gifts did not end with the apostolic age. I believe they are very much in operation and I also believe that our Westernized culture has largely reasoned them out of existence. I certainly hope I did not imply that the Spirit of God is no longer operative in our world! If that were the case my own calling experience would have to be thrown out.

Religious painting certainly does have a language all its own and I am just learning to form the basic sounds. Let me clearly state again that when it comes to matters of art I am a philistine in every sense of the word. I enjoy art but all too often have no idea of what I am looking upon. I make no apology for this and the collaboration I suggested to Carol was largely for my own benefit. I desire to know and learn more.

Final note, I'm not sure that I believe the painting to be specifically about the efficacy of praying to the saints either. My task in the collaboration was to comment from a theological standpoint. This is certainly a point of theology that comes up in this painting so I addressed it from where I stand. I didn't even begin addressing the marvelously rich point you raise about God's work through history. Perhaps I need an additional post to unpack that heavy bag.

Thanks for dropping by. Be watching for our next project...I'm excited about this one!

Carol L. Douglas said...

Gwendolyn, you raise a good point about reading paintings as you read icons. I too have this sense about this particular painting although I think it’s an accident of the subject matter rather than a deliberate attempt by the artist.

I confess that I’m not much of a fan of icons. In the first place, how useful are they in a world where everyone can read and where we have movies, audio, etc.? Secondly, icons are often abused through the attribution of miraculous properties to them (for example, the Hodegetria of Constantinople or the Black Madonna of Częstochowa). This may not have been the intention of the artist, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

What did Andrei Rublev actually think he was painting, anyway? He worked within broad stylistic conventions that we now identify with icons. However, these were the standards of Byzantine art. Since all paintings of this era were religious, what differentiated between an icon and a painting? (FWIW, Rublev was a genius, a great painter, worth studying.) My sense is that these early paintings were accorded iconic status long after the fact, when Byzantium began to look quaint.

My laptop goes back for service tomorrow, so you guys will have to figure this out without me. Have fun!

John said...

Ok Gwendolyn and Carol, you guys have definitely gone off the reservation here. Can you send my decoder ring in the mail so I can keep up with this end of the conversation? (Snicker, snicker)

Carol, I must agree with you on the point of icon abuse. I can accept the idea that we need to have a greater awareness of those who've gone before us (to that end I will be treating my church family to an introduction to a saint each week next year...) but we need to take care in seeking help from them when "Our help comes from the LORD" (Ps. 121:2).

Gwendolyn said...

OK, Blogspot just ate the note I was reading when I decided to read John's comment before posting. DANG!

Decoder ring coming.

Now, Carol and John, are the ICONS somehow responsible for the fact that people abuse them? Now, now... not likely.

I will post this now, and begin again on the real post. :-)

Gwendolyn said...

This is a test. My last post has not appeared yet... and I've been waiting a while.

Gwendolyn said...

RATS! It looks like Carol has figured out how to lure me to respond to her request of some months ago, and has gotten me to write about or plan to write about iconography.

We have these fun conversations during painting class. Today's, John, will be perfectly comprehensible to you, "Please let me finish my paragraph!" There should be giggles at this point!

I have some observations and a few questions. CAROL, please answer the first question before LAPPY goes off to the hospital again.

Observations: By the time Christianity took hold in Russia (9th Century +/-), the tradition of icon painting was well-established in the western Orthodox church.

So when Rublev was painting (15th century), there is no question in my mind that he intended to write an icon.

Apart from medium (egg tempera) and foundation (a piece of wood), he also follows the detailed rules of icon-writing.

Carol, here you go. There is something seriously wrong with this painting. When you can tell me what it is, you will know why I believe it is an icon and not a painting.

Other questions:

Who were the Old Testament Trinity?

What story underlies this icon?

How does that story inform our lives?

How does that story prefigure the conception and birth of Jesus?

I once took a group of Xerox folks through this icon, and in 2 minutes (I had to time it so they wouldn't panic at having to look at art without talking) they figured out most of the story. So you can do it, too!

Some people respond to auditory stories. Some people respond to music. Some respond to art. Some to dance, as it happens. So, even though we have books and writing, icons still have a role in teaching the story of redemption.

And icon writiers, iconographers, are considered by the Orthodox Church as equivalent in mission to those who preach the Word of God. Not just anyone can write an icon, and they approach the work with prayer, study, and fasting.

I have a friend who says, "I'll see it when I believe it."

From that perspective, it becomes much easier to understand how others can believe they see / experience things that we doubt!

If you were raised to pray with icons, icons may have extra meaning and teaching for you. (For me, my reproductions of icons constitute part of the cloud of witnesses that supports me! Even though I was raised Methodist, and not UMC but Free Methodist!!! My ancestors are turning in their graves as I type.)

If you believe in the intervention of saints, you are likely to interpret your experience through that lens.

If you experience speaking in tongues as meaningful (I, sadly, do not), then it enriches your spiritual life, as long as you don't abuse it. (I have seen people become addicted to speaking in tongues, for example.)

So, onwards, gang! There is much to discover here!

John said...


Sorry I'm so long in returning to this discussion. It seems that Carol may have recruited me, without my knowledge, to bait you into a discussion! ;-)! Glad for it, and thanks for the "decoder ring"!

You speak of the visual nature of iconography as well as ask the question about "abusing icons". First to the abuse question. You are right, it's not the icons fault. As with all created things they are morally neutral, however their users are not. The Bible is littered with the devastating results of idolatry - even good emblems/symbols/icons became objects which superseded the people's worship of God. (I offer up the example of the very temple of God - Jeremiah 7:3-4 & 8-15). Man has a terrible tendency to place faith in that which is seen rather than that which is un-seen.

As for the visual communication of the gospel. I have long thought this to be key area of art. In an illiterate Europe the art in the churches clearly communicated the gospel. Our society is quickly becoming illiterate (though able to read) and needs the visual arts to once again communicate the life changing truths of the gospel. So, it is possible that icons have a significant role to play in our day and age. If a group of business execs from Xerox are able to get the message in a couple of minutes then most anyone should be able to do the same (BTW - that is not a slam on the intelligence of Xerox execs!).

Marin Luther stated, "I am not of the opinion that all the arts shall be crushed to the earth and perish though the Gospel, as some, bigoted persons pretend, but would willingly see them all, and especially music, servants of Him who gave and created them." May it also be with your endeavors.