Fort Drum, home to the 10th Mountain Division and, until very recently, to my family, has recently provided something rather unusual for its soldiers: great art. It is a very refreshing development that one can now walk into the main entrance of the Main Post Chapel of this large military installation in western New York and encounter a beautiful and moving sculpture of Joan of Arc.
The sculpture, entitled The Pieta of Joan of Arc, portrays the heroine not in her usual martial stance with standard in hand, but sitting on a tree stump, holding a dying soldier in her lap. The sculptor is Daniel Balan, former Army NCO and now architect in New York City, who was commissioned by retired Army chaplain Father Michael Cerrone. The sculpture is a bronze cast, about three feet high but set on a high, black base so that it can be viewed at eye level. The figures are slightly angled to the left, and Joan’s upright, vertical position is balanced by the soldier’s slanting body which pours out into the viewer’s space, his legs dangling off the side of the base.
Balan has carefully sculpted Joan’s face—she is very distinct and realistic—while the soldier is more roughly handled, an anonymous face with eyes wide in pain and mouth agape. One easily imagines him partially in wonder at the lovely face looking down at him, partially in anticipation of his approaching death. This moment is very significant: it is based on eyewitness accounts of Joan comforting a soldier, who was, as it happens, an English prisoner too poor to be ransomed. When she saw her Frenchmen mortally strike this prisoner, she rushed to him, summoning a priest for the last rites.
The scene is lovingly described by Mark Twain in his book on Joan of Arc—a work which few know that he wrote and even fewer that it was his favorite of all his books. One particular passage from it evokes so wonderfully the sculpture in Ft. Drum:
Toward the end of the day I came upon her where the dead and dying lay stretched all about in heaps and winrows; our men had mortally wounded an English prisoner who was too poor to pay a ransom, and from a distance she had seen that cruel thing done; and had galloped to the place and sent for a priest, and now she was holding the head of her dying enemy in her lap, and easing him to his death with comforting soft words, just as his sister might have done; and the womanly tears running down her face all the time.
Twain’s narrative of Joan’s unbiased compassion towards this enemy was in fact the initial inspiration for this commission. Fr. Cerrone felt Joan’s actions were emblematic of her selfless integrity in war in general and her prioritization of the spiritual salvation of everyone involved. Because it was a gift to all of Fort Drum, it was decided that the sculpture would be situated in a main entrance hallway, rather than the sanctuary of the chapel itself or the smaller Catholic chapel. The sculpture is flanked by large quotes by Generals McArthur and Patton about moral courage and integrity in war. Every day, it acts as a reminder of heroic compassion to soldiers and officers of the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most deployed divisions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To soldiers, then, who have often faced an enemy with little respect for internationally prescribed moral standards in war, Balan’s Pieta upholds the inherent worthiness of those moral laws which protect the dignity of each life.
Still, in focusing on her military and moral legacy apart from her religiosity we only scratch the surface both of her character and of the sculpture’s intended meaning. Joan’s is a story of a humble young girl who received divine visions directing her to do everything for which we still celebrate her. Many people today, Christians included, would sense a contradiction between Joan’s mystical saintliness and her sword. Outside of the places of worship, all public spheres are increasingly emptied of even rhetorical appeal to Judeo-Christian morality, and the military is no exception. We cling to lingering mores and uphold certain virtues, but as we lose their underpinnings, we lose the supernatural strength needed to live them out as this famous heroine did.
The more closely we examine Balan’s sculpture, the more we are confronted with its specifically Christian themes of Joan as a saint whose sword was her means of doing God’s will, not a contradiction to it. By the posture of the two figures and, more obviously, the title of The Pieta of Joan of Arc, the artist means to identify Joan with the Virgin Mary and the soldier with her Beloved Son, situating his sculpture in the tradition of all of those famous attempts to render the moment of Mary receiving Christ’s body off of the Cross. Her sword, stuck in the ground, provides the form of the Cross, symbolizing the synthesis of her faith and her military quest. Furthermore, the Cross stands also for her participation in Jesus’ suffering. She sits upon a tree stump, signifying the wooded area where the skirmish was reported to have taken place, yet also foreshadowing her own agony at the burning stake.
These layers of symbolism in Balan’s Pieta reveal that what truly sets Joan’s moral integrity apart as “holy” is how much it embraced vulnerability and forgiveness. This kind of heroism does not necessarily involve victory; it very often might mean accepting loss. We know that Joan embraces this vulnerability because she refuses to deny her beliefs even with full knowledge of the consequences and because she forgives her persecutors at her death. Her forgiveness of this one, anonymous Englishman hints to her future pardon of all those who condemned her.
In the extreme renunciation of herself in death, Joan proved her saintliness even to many of the English present. It was a secretary to the English king, who, after witnessing her death, muttered, “We are lost. It is a saint we have burned. . .” Winston Churchill, in a chapter devoted to Joan in The Birth of Britain, echoes this recognition, which is manifest also in the expression of the dying soldier’s upturned face, in a superlative passage:
Joan was a being so uplifted from the ordinary run of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years. . . . She embodied the natural goodness and valor of the human race in unexampled perfection. Unconquerable courage, infinite compassion, the virtue of the simple, the wisdom of the just, shone forth in her.
Balan’s Pieta attempts to express something of that “infinite compassion” and “virtue of the simple” that Churchill celebrates and that is so easily overlooked in today’s world, especially in the military. In many ways, it is a humble sculpture: It does not overwhelm the viewer with its size or its realism or the beauty of its figures. Instead, it invites us to contemplate in a very palpable way the holiness to which a Christian soldier can aspire by uniting his sword to the Cross of Christ.
Photo Credit: Eva Marie Haine
Eva Marie Haine studied art history at Princeton.