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Art and Images in Psychiatry
January 2013

Joan of Arc

Author Affiliations


JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(1):6-7. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.816

Alas! Am I so horribly and cruelly used, that my clean body, never yet defiled, must this day be burnt and turned to ashes! Ha! Ha! I would rather be beheaded seven times than suffer burning.
Joan of Arc in prison on the day of her execution1(p143)

I pray you go to the nearest church, and bring me the cross, and hold it up level to my eyes until I am dead.
Joan of Arc at the stake just before burning1(p144)

In May 2012, the French city of Orléans celebrated the 600th birthday of their heroine Joan of Arc (1412-1431), a French peasant whose courageous leadership helped liberate the city from the English invaders. This liberation, which was led by the 17-year-old Joan, halted the advance of the English into the south of France and resulted in the crowning of the Dauphin, Charles VII, heir to the throne, as king of France. Joan of Arc's leadership was a turning point in the Hundred Years' War and played a pivotal role in the ultimate ousting of the English from France.

She is an iconic martyr who was beatified and canonized by her Church. At the celebration in Orléans, more than 600 portraits of Joan of Arc, created over the centuries, were projected in the City Hall. Her legacy has only gained momentum over the years, inspiring hundreds of books, plays, musical compositions, movies, and works of art. Mark Twain,2 enthralled by her life story, believed that his biography of her was his best book.

An image of Joan of Arc appeared on pictures and postcards during World War I. In the United States, her image in armor was used on a poster to buy war savings stamps, and in France, soldiers were given a heroic medallion with her image to carry with them into war. Winston Churchill said that Joan was a being so uplifted from the ordinary run of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years. He felt that she embodied the natural goodness and valor of the human race in unexampled perfection.

Verbatim transcripts of Joan's heresy trial in 1431 and of the sworn depositions of those who knew her in 1456 at the retrial that nullified her earlier conviction of heresy document her life story in vivid detail. Yet controversy remains about whether she was divinely inspired or delusional. Ultimately these are matters of belief and of patriotism, and this controversy (ie, whether she heard voices or not) does not detract from her accomplishments.3 Psychologically, her life is unique in the way that she pursued her sacred conviction by having a dialogue with these inner voices. Joan fervently believed that these voices, of Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret, called on her to fulfill the prophecy that a young maid, a virgin, would restore the Dauphin to the throne of France and expel the English invaders. Yet, her adversary, Henry VI of England, also believed that God was on his side and would restore his rights and inheritance in France.3

Joan of Arc began hearing voices at 13 years of age. Initially they told her to be good, but by 17 years of age, she was led to her mission by these voices. In keeping with the prophecy, Joan was devout, taking a vow of celibacy. Only twice did she disobey her parents, first when she refused a marriage offer that resulted in a lawsuit for breach of promise and second when she left on her mission to save the French people.3 Her attitude toward the invaders was colored by her personal experience of loss when Burgundians, allied with the English, raided her village in July 1428, burning down her church and village and damaging her father's fields. Armed with her visions and voices from Saints Catherine, Margaret, and Michael, she convinced the local military to take her to the Dauphin. She presented her case to them by saying: “Have you not heard this prophecy . . . that France will be destroyed by a woman, and restored by a virgin from the marches of Lorraine.”3(p104) She traveled across France with 6 soldiers from her village for an audience with the Dauphin.

Joan could not have succeeded in obtaining a meeting with the Dauphin without the help of Yolande of Aragon, Queen of Sicily, supporter of female visionaries and mother-in-law of the Dauphin.4 Yolande was one of the most powerful women in the royal court; she and her ladies confirmed Joan's virginity. It was Yolande who convinced the waffling Dauphin that Joan was destined to fulfill the prophesy.4 The city of Orléans was desperate. After a long siege by the English, it was isolated (with diminishing rations) and was near capitulation. The residents felt that only an act of God could save them, and, hearing about Joan, many believed that she could fulfill their hopes.

Once the Dauphin agreed, battle armor and a standard were prepared for Joan. The standard was emblazoned with the names “Jhesus” and “Maria” and depicted Christ in judgment, with one hand holding the world and the other hand blessing the lily of France.3 Angels were placed on either side of the banner. In her scabbard was placed the sword of Charlemagne's grandfather sanctified by his ancient victory over the Muslims.3 Joan of Arc, dressed in that armor and holding her banner and sword, is depicted in an illuminated book from the year 1475 (cover and thumbnail ). In this illuminated manuscript, her 3 saints appear on the banner too. Although there are no contemporary portraits of Joan, this illustration captures how she was viewed by her contemporaries.

Anonymous, 15th century. Joan of Arc from an illuminated manuscript. Musée de l’Histoire de France, Paris. Image size: 4096 × 4772 pixels. Photo: Bulloz. Photograph reproduced by kind permission of RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York, NY.

Joan sent a letter to the English, in which she wrote: “I have been sent by God, the King of Heaven, to drive you all out of France, body for body. And if [you] wish to obey, I will show [you] mercy.”3(p112) Inspired by Joan's bravery, the French Army at Orléans scored a remarkable victory. Joan accompanied the royal court to Rheims, France, where the Dauphin was crowned Charles VII. After his coronation, Joan sought to continue the fight, but the Dauphin preferred negotiation. Joan eventually prevailed and attacked Paris. When she was injured, the army retreated. Later, in another campaign, Joan was captured by the Burgundians, who were allies of the English. When Charles did not provide the Burgundians' ransom, they sold her to the English. Thus, Joan of Arc was put on trial by an inquisitorial court controlled by the English government in occupied northern France. She was found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake at Rouen in 1431 (epigraph). One of her sins was that she behaved immodestly by dressing as a man.

The execution of 19-year-old Joan of Arc for heresy was a profound tragedy carried out for political reasons. She died firm in her beliefs, unbowed, steadfastly refusing to acquiesce to her inquisitors. At the end, she was taken to the old market in Rouen, and in the presence of her judges and the public, Joan was read her death sentence and then her Sentence of Excommunication before burning. After the sentencing, it was demanded of her by Bishop Pierre Cauchon that, before death, she recant. Her retort was simply this: “Bishop I die through you.”3(p143) Indeed, she died because of his treachery. Thus, with Joan discredited, the English crowned 10-year-old Henry VI king of England and France 6 months after her death.

A painting by Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) shows Joan of Arc in prison being interrogated by the cardinal of Winchester (Figure). He looks sternly toward her as she sits on a bed of straw, her arms in chains. Joan was coerced under threat of burning to abjure by signing a document (with her mark) written in French, one that she later retracted. For the official record, the Bishop substituted another, more detailed document in Latin of his own making to further justify her condemnation. In 1449, the French regained Rouen, and the English were finally routed from France as Joan predicted they would be. Guillaume Bouille, theological adviser to Charles VII, convinced the king to issue a royal decree to nullify the heresy trial.4 Bouille refuted the arguments made in the first heresy trial. First, he justified a woman wearing men's clothing if undertaken from the perspective of modesty when forced to live among soldiers (her prison guards stayed in her cell and not outside it). Moreover, she could wear male clothing if asked to do so by divine revelation, as other female saints had done. Overturning the heresy trial was critical for Charles VII. As long as her voices were officially deemed heretical and not divine by the Church, the crowning of Charles VII had been initiated by a heretic, raising doubts about its legitimacy; in other words, he had been taken in by a heretic, and his crowning was the work of the devil. It was “an iniquitous, scandalous sentence which threatens [the king’s] crown.”4(p237). Yet, everything that Joan had predicted based on her voices had come true. Thus, it was the English who were deceived and had done the devil's work by executing her.

Joan of Arc's interrogation in prison, 1824. Paul Delaroche (1797-1856), French. Joan of Arc, sick, is interrogated in her prison by the cardinal of Winchester, 1824. Oil on canvas, 277 × 217 cm (109 × 85 in). Musée des Beaux Arts, Rouen, France. Photo: P. Bernard. Photograph reproduced by kind permission of RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York, NY.

Two decades after her prediction came true that the English would be driven from France, an ecclesiastical retrial was held, and Joan was exonerated. A series of investigations were launched that led to a formal appeal that was managed by the Inquisitor-General in 1455. Finally, Joan's family brought a suit before the Pope on her behalf. Two months after the election of Pope Calixtus III, Isabelle Romée and her 2 sons appealed for justice concerning Joan's case. The Pope authorized the investigation and appointed the judges.

At the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Isabelle tearfully approached the Pope to recite her request for justice for her daughter: “I had a daughter born in legitimate marriage whom I fortified worthily with the sacraments of baptism and confirmation and raised in fear of God and respect for the tradition of the church . . . after due confession, [she] received the sacrament of the Eucharist despite her young age and gave herself to fasting and prayer . . . Certain enemies . . . betrayed her in a trial concerning the Faith, and . . . [with no] aid given to her innocence in a perfidious, violent, and iniquitous trial without shadow of right . . . they condemned her in a damnable and criminal fashion and made her die most cruelly by fire . . . For the damnation of their souls and in notorious, infamous and irreparable loss to me, Isabelle, and mine . . . I demand that her name be restored.”5(p156)

With the consent of Pope Calixtus III, Joan was declared innocent on July 7, 1456. The evidence summarized by the Inquisitor describes Joan as a martyr who was executed by a religious court that was in itself in violation of the Church's rules. She was a martyr unjustly executed for a secular vendetta. Her legend would grow over the ensuing centuries leading to her beatification in 1909 at Notre Dame Cathedral and her canonization on May 16, 1920, in Rome in St Peter's Basilica. Each year, beginning in 1432, the city of Orléans has commemorated her death, and from 1435 onward, the city has performed a religious play centered around her victories, and now it has honored her on the 600th anniversary of her birth.

Joan's own voice comes through loudly and clearly in the official trial transcript. When asked in what dialect her “voices” spoke to her, she replied: “In one better than yours.” When asked whether she believe in God, she replied: “Yes, better than you.” She said to her accusers “I am not afraid . . . I was born to do this.”1

Trask W. Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words. New York, NY: Turtle Point Press; 1996
Twain M. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.  Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc; 2002
Barker J. Conquest: The English Kingdom of France 1417-1450. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2012
Goldstone N. The Maid and the Queen. New York, NY: Penguin Group; 2012
Permoud R, Clin MV. Joan of Arc: Her Story.  Adams JdQ, trans. New York, NY: St Martins; 1999