For my third blog I will be discussing Joan of Arc as a religious symbol and comparing her to another religious female figure during the medieval ages: the Virgin Mary.
Above is a depiction of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus. While Mary was worshiped throughout the medieval ages, the Cult of the Virgin Mary gained prominence in Western Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth century (Women and Religion). Whereas society saw women as workers of evil, Mary exemplified goodness and therefore, emulation of Mary by women was an escape from sin (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Uniquely, while existing as the ideal mother, Mary also was exempt from carnal sin by remaining a virgin (this was the understanding of medieval people). Thus, the Virgin Mary was what medieval women could strive to emulate, but could never truly do so. In her review of Marina Warner’s book, Alone in All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary Joan of Arc: the Image of Female Heroism, Johanna Wolgast addresses this inadequacy, saying, “Mary is alone of all her sex in remaining pure while sexually functional. If the Virgin Mary is understood and interpreted as an eternal, super religious archetypal model for a woman’s individuation, all women are judged by this impossible ideal, and their universal inability to live up to it has truly insidious psychological consequences” (Wolgast 28)
Besides a figure to worship and emulate, the Virgin Mary also served as a balance to Eve, the other great mother, who had transgressed by tempting Adam in the Garden, and by doing so, doomed herself and all women to a life dominated by service to their male counterparts. Wolgast also addressed this in her review, saying “Eve’s transgression; her punishment in the form of pain at menstruation and labor; and her domination by her husband all express this idea with emphatic economy” (Wolgast 29). Thus, Eve was the mother that doomed mankind, while the Virgin Mary was the mother who brought salvation to mankind.
However, the Mary’s virginity also gave her a special standing beyond being what was impossible for other women. Beginning in the tenth century, virginity became associated with asceticism (a form of self-martyrdom) and marked a woman as separate from the subservience required of women who had sexual relations with men and bore them children. Wolgast again raised this point in her review saying, “Female virginity was and is conceived of as above all a physical state, and so gives women a special potential for purity” (Wolgast 30). In this way, women were in a unique position which men were unable to participate in. “Free of male domination and of the responsibilities of motherhood, a virgin commanded respect, had an increase of independence even in seclusion, might travel on pilgrimages, endure trials, and create legend” (31). This was not to say that women were given equal footing as men, but their status as virgins could enable them to do things otherwise open to them.
Joan of Arc was one such woman who utilized the status of virgin, “At about sixteen, refusing to marry the man chosen for her by her family, hearing and obeying the voices of saints. She left home alone, determined-with the help of continuous communications from God-to save France” (Wolgast 31) Joan’s status as a virgin gave her the status of purity to not only make divine claims, but also to reject the marriage arranged by her parents and depart to visit with the French Crown. Partially because of her status as a virgin and thus having special purity, she was able to make grand claims about divinity support her cause (English translation, d’Arc, Maid of Orleans). In doing so, she aligned herself with a tradition of virgin woman warriors that even had a place in Greek history, such as with the case of Athena.
Germalde, Freskenzyklus im Dominikanerkloster San Marco in Florenz, Szene: Verkündigung, 1437-1446, Museo di San Marco, Florence, Online.
(trans.), T. Douglas Murray. Jeanne d’Arc, Maid of Orleans. New York: McClure, 1902.
Authors, Contributing. Women and Religion. 2014.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Cult of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages. 2013. Online. 24 April 2014.
Wolgast, Johanna. “Virgin and Maid.” The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal (1990): 25-34.