Before the Maid of Orleans was canonized, she raised morale among World War I soldiers and civilians as an important symbol of American patriotism.
Over the centuries, Joan of Arc has inspired an astonishing number of paintings, films, books, plays, and musical compositions. She has been used to represent virginal purity, religious ecstasy, ardent Communism, and radical feminism. Her short life and brief moment of earthly success is conducive to wildly inconsistent interpretations, allowing each successive generation to make of her whatever it wishes.
In the twentieth century, Joan became the prototypical American patriot, her white lily-strewn banner transformed into the Stars and Stripes and her love of France mystically transferred to a nation that did not even exist during her lifetime.
Joan of Arc During World War I
Prior to Joan’s canonization by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, she was primarily regarded as a symbol of patriotism in the U.S.. Americans initially associated her with the French soldiers who were trying to drive brutal foreign invaders from their land.
When the United States entered the war, Americans swiftly disregarded Joan’s national origins and began to claim her as a universal patriot. A song called “Joan of Arc — They Are Calling You” was penned by Alfred Bryan and Willie Weston. Set to music by Jack Wells, it became extremely popular with the American public and was often sung by U.S. doughboys.
Books about Joan flooded the market, including a sentimental tale titled The Broken Soldier and the Maid of France, in which a brave young Joan appears to a French deserter and inspires him to return to his unit. Children’s books such as Joan of Arc: The Warrior Maid brought Joan’s story to the juvenile set. Mark Twain’s book about Joan was reissued with lavish illustrations by artist Howard Pyle.
A film called “Joan the Woman” was released on Christmas Day, 1916. Starring Geraldine Farrar as Joan, this 180-minute Cecil B. DeMille epic received glowing reviews and achieved box office success.
A New York monument to Joan was commissioned in 1915. It was designed by sculptor Anna Vaughn Hyatt, who consulted with experts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to ensure that Joan’s armor and sword were depicted in a historically accurate manner.
Joan of Arc’s Image Sold War Savings Stamps
Although the historical Joan was condemned partly for cutting her hair short and “cross-dressing,” artists have often depicted her dressed like women of their particular era. This has resulted in some very weird likenesses of Joan riding into battle in fancy, low-cut gowns, her waist-length hair flowing from beneath enormous and elaborately plumed hats. World War I illustrators were no exception to this anachronistic tradition.
Joan’s image was remade to resemble a Gibson Girl type. Complete with bright red lips and gleaming toothpowder-polished smile, Joan was a great success on the U.S. Treasury Department’s posters that encouraged American women to purchase War Savings Stamps. Joan appears slim yet curvaceous, wearing resplendent armor and brandishing a sword aloft: “Joan of Arc Saved France. Women of America, Save Your Country. Buy War Savings Stamps,” admonished the advertisements.
Sainthood Ended Joan of Arc’s Symbolic Value to U.S.
After the Great War finally ended, U.S. relations with France soured over disputes concerning war loans. Joan was quickly and quietly dropped as a symbol of American patriotism. After she was elevated to sainthood, Joan “belonged to” the Roman Catholics and was no longer extremely popular with the nation as a whole.
Nonetheless, during World War I, the United States did not see Joan as a religious figure or as a peculiarly French icon. U.S. citizens either disregarded or simply accepted Joan’s visions, voices, and visionary fervor; fashioning her into a true secular saint: defiant, courageous, recklessly youthful, and somehow always quintessentially American.
- Heimann, Nora M. and Coyle, Laura, Joan of Arc: Her Image in France and America, Corcoran, 2006.
- Gordon, Mary, Joan of Arc: A Life, Penguin Books, 2000.
- Spoto, Donald, Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint, HarperCollins, 2007.