Monday, December 29, 2008

Warrior Women

St. Teresa can be seen, and is indeed seen by believers, as a warrior for the Christian faith. Though in theory a paradoxical reversal of established gender roles, the idea of the warrior woman is in fact deeply rooted in Western culture. From the ancient Greek world came the legend of the Amazons, a tribe consisting of women who lived separately but mated with men of another people, keeping only the female children thus produced. These they brought up to be warriors like themselves. In order to facilitate their use of the bow, they amputated one breast. Combats between Amazons and Greeks were a favorite subject in Greek art, and in the mid-fifth century BC a famous statue of an Amazon was created by the sculptor Cresilas. This is thought to survive in a number of Roman copies. 
     It is significant that Cresilas ' Amazon is portrayed as wounded - the wound, scarcely visible in the photograph, is under her raised arm and accounts for the weariness of her stance. This wound is symbolic of her loss of martial power after encountering those - presumably Greek and male - who had proved superior to her in battle. 
    The most famous 'warrior woman' in Western history is undoubtedly Joan of Arc, born c. 1412, burnt at the stake in 1431, and finally canonized in 1920. In response to visions that came to her when she was living at Domremy, a small village on the borders of Lorraine, Joan crossed France to the court of the future Charles VII at Chinon. There she inspired the dispirited French forces to raise the siege of the city of Orleans - and led the king to his belated coronation at Reims, thus legitimizing a monarch whose claim seemed precarious. 

       In one sense Joan fits a fairly common late medieval pattern- that of the individual who comes from nowhere but, claiming visionary inspiration, asserts the right to instruct and often to overrule secular power, thus leapfrogging, so to speak, all the gradations of the rigid social hierarchy of the period. Though both men and women took this path, it was of more importance to women, since it was one of the few ways in which members of the female sex could play a major role in the direction of affairs. The strategy was always high risk - the majority of these prophets and prophetesses were rapidly discredited, and then usually either imprisoned or executed. One of the few exceptions to this was Joan's near - contemporary St. Bridget of Sweden (c. 1303-73), a mystic and reformer who played a part in ending the exile of the papacy to Avignon, though this was not finally terminated until four years after her death. But Bridget's visions were not widely known until an account of them was published in 1492. Though Joan in theory failed- her execution as a heretic was meant to put an end to her influence - her story became so closely entangled with the renascent prestige of the French monarch that she remained for many years a nagging political and religious issue. Shortly after his triumphal entry into Rouen in 1450, which marked the decisive defeat of the invading English, Charles VII ordered an enquiry into her trial, which had been held there, Two years later, a fuller investigation, the so- called Trial of Rehabilitation, took place, and Joan, despite stout resistance from some of her surviving judges from the University of Paris, was officially exonerated. This exoneration was confirmed by Pope Calixtus III in 1456, and her condemnation for heresy was annulled. The medieval miniature illustrated here belongs to the first period of the revival of her reputation. It stresses her importance by making her larger than the other figures shown, but does not idealize her appearance. Though the miniature gives her such a commanding and active role, the incident it illustrates represents not one of Joan's successes but the first check in her career- her failure to take Paris in September 1429. 

    The painting of Joan by J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867), painted in 1854, belongs to a very different historical and psychological climate. Its context is that of nostalgic Bourbon legitimsim, after the overthrow in 1848 of the last Bourbon ruler of France, Louis Philippe, and his replacement by Napoleon III. Ingres' picture, which shows Joan at Charles VII's coronation in Reims cathedral, standing beside the altar carrying her banner, was intended to assert a mystical connection between the monarchy and divine right. Joan had now become a convenient emblem of this, whereas in the eighteenth century her legend had been cruelly satirized, notably in Voltaire's cynical mock-epic poem La Pucelle (1755). Ingres' picture also marks the beginning of something of more significance for the future- the French nineteenth - century nationalist upsurge which led to Joan's belated canonization following the French victory in World War I. Compared with the medieval miniature, the Joan shown here is passive. She does not act, she is content to play a purely symbolic role.   

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