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The reasons why Joan of Arc remains a cultural icon

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Heroine, peasant, legend, warrior, martyr. Joan of Arc It can be cited with a multitude of adjectives, but none of them describe it completely. Her figure has transcended history and, to this day, continues to be a cultural icon worthy of analysis. Many films, series, artistic representations have been made about her… But we are still fascinated by how a teenager was able to change the course of an event as important as the Hundred Years War.

Now, the Teatro Real gives another perspective of this peasant woman who became a warrior with the Opera Joan of Arc at the stake. Starring Marion Cotillardthis work shows in a groundbreaking and avant-garde way the death of Joan of Arc, who, while at the stake, remembers and reflects on her life.

But why is this young woman from the 15th century still an icon? What is it about Joan of Arc that appeals to all kinds of people?

His story

On the one hand, his life story is worthy of admiration. Born into a peasant family in the fields of Domrémy, northeast of France, She became a heroine for the country when fighting against the English in the final phase of the Hundred Years’ War.

She was a teenager when she heard heavenly voices that transmitted a transcendental message to her: It was up to her to save her nation from the English invasion. Willing to fulfill her divine mission, she led the French army in episodes as important as the liberation of Orleans (1429), which he achieved in four days, when the city had been under siege for six months.

Imaginary portrait of Joan of Arc. Oil on parchment from the 19th or 20th century.

National Archives of France / Wikimedia Commons

Her military career was very brief, since in 1430 she was captured in Compiègne by the Burgundian faction, a group of French nobles allied with the English. Later, she was prosecuted by Bishop Pierre Cauchon and was found guilty of heresy. So, In 1431, when she was around 19 years old, she was burned at the stake..

It was not until 1456, 25 years after his death, that an inquisitorial tribunal authorized by Pope Callistus III examined his trial. The charges against him were dropped, so She was declared innocent and named a martyr. Since then, the legend of Joan of Arc, also known as Joan the Maiden wave Maid of Orleansreferring to its humble origins, has remained untouchable.


Another of the events that have elevated her to the title of ‘icon’ was her strategy to be able to fight within the ranks of the French army. The peasant she dressed in men’s clothes and adopted a much more manly appearance to go unnoticed – in addition to pure comfort in battle -. What’s more, one of the charges against him in the trial was cross-dressing.

On the research From Sorceress to Saint: the Heroic Piety of Joan of Arc, written by Isabel Balza, from the University of Jaén, analyzes the importance of this transvestism in the future of the Maid of Orleans. The author states that transvestism “is one of the fundamental causes of her conviction, for the transgression that represents the limits of the norms of the Church and the rigid regulations of gender binarism.

“Disguising yourself as a man is what determines cultural gender to a very high degree: here the habit makes the monk. In some way, her judges are revealing, with their fears that the accused dresses as a man, what Judith Butler has analyzed in our century: that gender is a performative and non-essential act, that it is enough to dress as a man to be a man. It is enough to look like it to be it,” says the study.

Zendaya at the 2018 Met Gala.


Although Joan of Arc was not the only woman in history to dress as a man to achieve her goal, the image of a young woman with short hair and armor has become a cultural reference. A recent example was the actress Zendayawhich adopted that aesthetic at the 2018 Met Gala, whose theme was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”

The iconography related to the ‘Warrior Saint’ also inspired the Parisian Antoni Cierplikowski at the beginning of the 20th century to create and popularize the bob cut –or cut à la Jeanne d’Arc–, which continues to triumph year after year.


Joan of Arc was undoubtedly a great leader, capable of mobilizing entire troops of soldiers. Unlike what happens with current characters, of whom we can analyze their speeches, behaviors, actions and even body language, to find out what makes them good leaders; with the Maid of Orleans we only have conjectures.

However, experts say that much of his success comes from his own conviction that his was a divine mission. “He provided moral leadership (…) and sometimes it is that persistence and insistence that instills commitment and courage in others,” Linda Seidel, professor emeritus of the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago, explained to BBC Mundo.

The author of the essay Changing images of Joan of Arcstated that “the city of Orleans wanted to believe him, the men under his command wanted to believe him. She had common sense and people believed in her, that she insisted on what the voices she heard had told her.”

This moral leadership still continues to inspire thousands of people. For example, Joan of Arc is venerated by followers of Caodaism. This religious movement, founded in Vietnam in 1928, has around 7 million followers around the world and integrates elements of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism and Confucianism.

Milla Jovovich as Joan of Arc in Luc Besson’s 1999 film.

In addition to Joan of Arc, among the historical figures who are worshiped or considered saints within this religion, there are Lenin, Jesus, Muhammad, Julius Caesar and Victor Hugo.

The figure of this legend has also inspired people like Alexander Havardauthor of Coaching with Joan of Arc (EUNSA, 2021). As she said in an interview with El Cultural, Joan of Arc made him abandon the legal profession to dedicate himself to her “virtuous leadership.”

“Among admirable characters, Juana is, in the opinion of many, the most admirable. It is a universal model accessible to all men and women, whatever their culture or religion. The heroine of Orleans is a strikingly modern young woman. There is nothing strange about it, nothing out of place, nothing anachronistic. Her piety was simple and natural. Her religion was popular. She was a girl like any other, aware of the power of her baptismal consecration,” she declared.


Finally, another of the most striking aspects of her figure is undoubtedly the voices he heard in his head and that they took her to fight against the English. There are many theories about it: whether she was ‘crazy’, whether she suffered from schizophrenia or some kind of mental illness, even whether she was a fake. Regarding this conjecture, there are some authors who maintain that she used her voices to achieve a relevance that she would never have had as a woman.

These doubts will never be resolved, but his attitude towards life has even led to a syndrome that bears his name. He “Joan of Arc Syndrome”as they say in psychology, is the “desire that implies a feeling of dedication and generosity without limits, since people who suffer from it even forget to satisfy their own needs.”

Despite all the mysteries that still surround Joan of Arc, one thing is very clear: that not only did she change the course of history, but she is still a cultural icon in every sense.

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