Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Travelling through Normandy in France, I arrive at the historical capital Rouen, a city dear to the heart of Victor Hugo, and to many Impressionist painters. From St. Catherine Hill, one has a panoramic view of the city – its buildings, its bridges, its churches and the spire of the Rouen Cathedral looming into the skies. From this vantage point Claude Monet painted 17 different views of the city. He even designed the fa├žade of the Cathedral.
But it was the story of Joan of Arc that got me excited. Little did I dream that I would one day stand on the Square where Joan of Arc was burnt alive at the stakes as a sorceress and a charlatan. She was only 19, a wisp of a girl with the face of an angel. The last words on her lips were “My Jesus!” Legend has it that her heart refused to burn. So it was thrown along with her ashes, into the river Seine, so that no one could erect a monument to her, and turn her into a martyr.
But a quarter of a century later, the Church had to eat humble pie, and declare her trial null and void. She was canonized as a saint in 1920. But it was only in 1979, that a cross was erected on the site of her martyrdom.
On the right of the Square is the Joan of Arc church, built in the shape of a ship. The church’s modern exterior has slate and copper scales, and evokes a picture of the sea. A flight of steps leads down to the worship area, simulating the hold of a ship. The colourful stained glass windows are from St. Vincent’s Church which was destroyed in 1944. In one of the windows, Joan is pictured praying in prison. And in one corner of the church stands a bronze replica of the saint. This church is her memorial. Her feast is commemorated on the Sunday nearest to May 30th. Not only a saint, Joan has become the national heroine, and May 30th is a national holiday.
Opposite the church and across the square, is the Joan of Arc Museum. Here in this vaulted old cellar on the Place du Vieux Marche, her story comes alive through books, engravings, paintings and 50 wax models. Commentaries are in English, German and Italian.
Born on 6th January 1412 at Domremy, Joan grew up to be a humble and deeply religious shepherdess. At the age of 13, she began to hear “voices” of three saints urging her to help the king. Charles VII was a weak man. There were doubts about his legitimacy to the throne. Joan was convinced by the “voices” that he had the right to rule.
Donning men’s clothes and cutting her hair short, she travelled to meet the king, and offer to lead his army against the English. This was an outrageous demand that stirred up a lot of anger in court. The king wanted to test if she was really a mystic. He made one of his courtiers sit on the throne to impersonate the king, and he wore the courtier’s clothes.
But Joan when ushered into the room, went straight up to the king in disguise.
“Give me 10,000 soldiers and I will bring you victory,” she promised.
At the Battle of Orleans which took place on May 8th 1429, she led her troops to victory against the English, and liberated Orleans. In July that year, she stood beside Charles as he was anointed and crowned king, at Rheims.
But the newly crowned king did not appreciate her mission. When Paris came under siege, her request for more soldiers to fight the English, was denied. She was taken prisoner by the enemy, brought to Rouen under military escort, and held in a turret of the Chateau Bouvreuil. Though the chateau is no more, the turret has been preserved as the Joan of Arc Tower, and stands on the street of the same name.
Here she languished for six months and her lament was,
“Oh Rouen, Rouen, It is here that I have to die.”
A visitor to the tower wrote, “The sad history that has occurred in this place still permeates the walls.”
She was judged at the Inquisitorial Tribunal which was presided over by the notorious Bishop Cauchon, under pressure from the English.
Joan was her own advocate. She was fearless in claiming that the “voices” she heard were authentic, and was convinced that Charles was the legitimate ruler of France. She was martyred on May 30th 1431.
One marvels at the courage and conviction of this chit of a girl, who was pitted against a fanatically patriarchal church and State. Though renounced by the church as a charlatan, and ignored by a spineless king who she fought to save, the people were convinced that she was a mystical saint.
Today her memory is consigned to the archives of Time, and the old wooden cross in the Square is merely a tourist attraction. The locals barely give it a second look.

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