Female in the Frontlines: Fernanda Maya’s ‘Juana de Arco’
Not a lot of women in Western medieval history have been recognized for their patriotic endeavors, let alone for their strength and fortitude in war. But at only seventeen years old, Jeanne d’Arc donned herself in men’s armor, marched off to battle on a horse, and led a group of French warriors to a victory against the Englishmen, their long-standing opponent.
Even more astonishingly, the peasant girl claimed that she was guided by voices in her head — voices that she recognized as God. Legend foretold that there would be a virgin destined to save the country; she believed that the shoes were hers to fill.
Despite her best efforts and victory, Joan of Arc — as she’s more popularly known — was later charged with witchcraft and heresy, among others. She was burned to the stake at a public marketplace at the tender age of nineteen.
The whole ordeal was a thankless duty for young Joan. Had it not been for her, Charles VII of France would not have risen to the throne, but the dauphin did not attempt to save her from punishment in fear of losing his legitimacy.
However, her death only caused more people to hear her story — and admire her for it. Charles VII eventually cleared the charges against her at a posthumous trial in 1456. Joan was declared innocent twenty years after her death.
Of course, it was far too late: she had already been severely punished for undue reasons.
But Joan’s heroism spread all around towns and cities, eventually gaining traction in the whole country. And it persevered for ages and ages. Joan of Arc may have had quite the tragic fate, but she became evermore known to the French as the Maid of Orléans.
Today, Joan is one of the country’s most celebrated heroines. And she was given a greater honor in 1920 — when Pope Benedict XV canonized her as one of the patron saints of France. Her unshakeable faith and character led more people to share her tale in meaningful ways, from literature to visual arts. Fernanda Maya’s ‘Juana de Arco’ is one of them.
A Sacred Young Girl Amidst a Perilous Battle
Maya’s illustration, ‘Juana de Arco,’ dramatizes the extraordinary tale even further by painting Joan geared in battle armor. There are no pretenses here: Joan is a young woman, pridefully and unapologetically.
The original story recounted Joan dressing as a man — it had been one of the ‘crimes’ the young girl was charged with. After all, it was highly uncommon for women in medieval Europe to hold military positions, much less be in the frontlines. But Maya wanted to highlight Joan’s girlhood.
Women, after all, are the definitive subject in most of her works. She paints them alongside other symbolic elements, such as snakes and flowers. “Delicate yet persistent” were her words to describe them; these values are overtly expressed in ‘Juana de Arco,’ too.
“In the midst of battle, Joan of Arc was a source of light and motivation for the people surrounding her,” Maya explained. “Her determination and strong will on the battlefield were the main focus of what I wanted to show in her facial expression.”
Her other works, such as ‘Gaia’ and ‘Transmutation’, also show women in a very reverential light, although they’re portrayed as mothers here rather than warriors. Regardless of their role, though, Maya views women as “a huge source of power, stored behind a strong stare and a soft embrace.”
Paying Proper Homage to the Heroine
Like many other artists who portrayed Joan of Arc, Maya wanted to make sure that her piece is immersive and consistent with the themes of the original material. There should be nothing lost in translation here.
“I needed to search for references for armor and religious or symbols related to Joan, like her emblem. As someone who does graphic work, it’s always best to [find] resources to get a better grasp at what you want to represent,” she explained.
There was no need to try too hard anyway — Maya treats her subjects, especially real ones, with utmost respect. Everything in the creative process stems from there. “Though I was aware of who Joan of Arc was, it was necessary to refresh my memory and learn more about her,” she said. “When portraying a real person, it’s important to do some research to get a glimpse of their character.”
Unfortunately, not much is known about Joan beyond the glorified legends. She could have been as delicate as she was fierce; as soft as she was passionate. But whatever she might have been, Maya still found it apt to celebrate her for what she’s known for: her fighting spirit.
“The core message is the strength found in beliefs and the willpower to see them through,” said Maya. The portrait delivers “the power of a woman against dangerous situations, and the power to motivate others through your own actions.”