|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
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.