Captivating Visions of Female Fortitude in Art

The young girl who became a legendary leader

Christopher P Jones
6 min readJan 31, 2024

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Joan of Arc (1903), engraving based on an original painting by Albert Lynch, from Figaro Illustre magazine. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The figure of Joan of Arc was once a potent force in the imaginations of past generations.

Also known as the Maid of Orléans, Joan was a peasant girl who became an unparalleled military leader during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England.

The 19th century in particular saw a reemergence of her legend, undoubtedly resulting from the rise of nationalism in Europe.

In art, her youthful appearance and fearless commitment to her country became a template for notions of personal destiny, inner courage and the virtues of patriotism.

Her portrayal also offered a fascinating reversal of the traditional stereotype of the female martyr as a victimised and cloistered figure. Instead, Joan was shown embracing her visionary calling by assuming an active and audacious role within the domain of masculine power.

Joan’s Calling

Joan of Arc (1879) by Jules Bastien-Lepage. Oil on canvas. 254 × 279.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, U.S. Image source Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

One of the best-loved paintings of Joan of Arc is this image, made by the French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage in 1879. It depicts one of the most notable aspects of Joan’s story, the divine nature of her call to arms.

Born in the village of Domrémy, France, Joan neither went to school nor ever learnt to read or write.

From the age of 12 she began to hear voices, at first from St. Michael, then later from St. Catherine and St. Margaret too, who addressed her as Jeanne La Pucelle or “Joan the Maid”, meaning Joan the virgin, daughter of God.

The tradition of women with visionary gifts constitutes both a rich and troubling history. As the historian Anne Llewellyn Barstow has noted, accounts of mystically-minded females have tended to treat such women as reclusive, misunderstood figures. Yet Barstow also reminds us that the unverifiable nature of their visions presented women with a unique opportunity:

“We must see how women used mystical experience — experience so private that it may be beyond male control — to develop an awareness…

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