Friday, January 29


New Illustration from Matthew Alderman

Matthew Alderman. St. Joan of Arc with SS. Louise de Marillac and Francis de Sales. 10" x 13.5". Private Collection, Wisconsin. January 2010.

Towards the end of last year, I was approached by two clients, independently, who both commissioned ink illustrations of St. Joan of Arc--one for his girlfriend for a Christmas present, the other for his wife, as a gift on her birthday, that is, today, the Extraordinary Form feast of St. Francis de Sales. I had already posted about the first Joan earlier this week, and this item is about the second. These two projects were particularly challenging, given I have always worked hard not to repeat myself. Liturgical illustration and iconography is formulaic by its nature, at least as to content, but certainly there is some degree of latitude when it comes to rendering that content visible, at least up to a certain point. The great Irish stained-glass designer and illustrator Harry Clarke often referred to the various tics of color and contrast he experimented with as his latest "gadgett" (sic), a self-depreciating term which belies the strong iconographic (if occasionally somewhat stylisticially idiosyncratic) quality of his work.

As I have written elsewhere, St. Joan's iconography is deceptively simple--girl in armor, banner, fleurs-de-lys, enough. Yet, many of the "official" images of her--holy cards, plaster statues, and the like--tend to be more tempered with 19th century sentimentality than a real ecclesiastical sensibility. Some are historically illogical--it is hard to believe St. Joan would have worn the long encumbering skirts she is shown wearing, and often show her hair considerably longer than it would have been in truth. On the other hand, liturgical art is not an exercise in historical reconstruction or photorealism, and such reminders of her feminine genius show us that while men and women alike are called to fight under Christ's banner--in Joan's case, taking that banner into the ferocious heart of battle--the sexes have their own unique ways of manifesting courage and fortitude.

St. Joan's masterful strategies, earthy commonsense and even mysticism, have a feminine spin to them. Still, one should not mistake femininity for mere girlishness, and any image of her ought to reflect that genial no-nonsense quality that radiates from any firsthand account of her deeds. So this is why I elected to give her a skirt--plus the fact I didn't like the way the early sketches turned out) but also kept the shorter haircut that is roughly what she would have worn in life. (In truth, it would have been a bowl haircut of the sort associated with Henry V as portrayed by Laurence Olivier, but that would have simply looked odd.)

St. Joan is shown in full armor, of an elegant simplicity and decorated with fleurs de lys, her pose reminiscent of medieval tomb slabs. She holds--in a somewhat exaggerated incarnation--the sword decorated with five crosses--she discovered buried under the floor of a church dedicated to St. Katherine as the result of a vision. The arms granted by the king to her relations is shown over her shoulder. Her swordbelt is decorated with the smoke and flame of her execution and the cross pommée associated with St. Michael, one of her famous Voices. Under her feet are the flames of her death at the stake, which dissolves into whorls of smoke that merge into the clouds of heaven. Overhead are her final words, "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!" which also recall the inscription "Jhesus Maria" on her banner. At top, Christ is shown with the attributes of the Lord of Hosts. While this is a title we often associate with God the Father, the depiction is derived from an image in a medieval manuscript.

The client requested that St. Joan be shown accompanied by SS. Louise de Marillac and Francis de Sales, two other saints important to his wife. St. Louise is shown in the standard iconographic manner (the direct precedent in this case is an image of her in St. Peter's), accompanied by a Daughter of Charity in the traditional headdress, holding up a foundling child. An angel above holds an escucheon of the order's emblem; the text on the scroll, translated, reads "The Charity of Christ impells us," a phrase associated with St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise's priestly co-worker.

St. Francis de Sales is depicted in the right-hand panel holding a book and pen, the book emblazoned with his emblem of a flaming heart, the symbol of charity. He is shown in cappa magna with a pectoral cross on a ribbon. I have seen and heard a number of things as to when use of the pectoral cross was permitted with the cappa magna, and whether it was used on a chain, ribbon or cord. My precedent here was an image of the theologian Bishop Bossuet in cappa magna--a figure of the following century, but with a pectoral cross and ribbon similar to one shown in an image of St. Francis wearing a mozzetta and rochet. An angel above carries the saint's personal arms, while the insignia of the Institute of Christ the King, which is under his patronage, is in the lower left-hand corner. The client and his wife are active in the local Institute apostolate. The motto Veritatem facientes in caritate, derived from St. Paul, is also associated with St. Francis de Sales.

While this assemblage of saints has as its origin something distinctly personal, we see in this juxtaposition three great holy figures springing from the Church's eldest (if now rather wayward) daughter, France, and also bringing together the virtues of charity in action, truth in charity, and St. Joan's own very active witness to God's truth and justice.

(Crossposted to The New Liturgical Movement.)

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