What Does It Matter?

January 16, 2019

 

What does it matter?

 

Believe it or not, this is a portrait of a saint. Saint Michael, in fact. It's by the Italian Baroque artist Cesare Dandini (1596-1657). I know little about classical art and its conventions, very, very little about saints, and nothing at all about Dandini  (though I gotta say, I love that name Dandidni.)  Still it seems to me that Signore Dandini is trying to tell us something here. After all, in nearly all other depictions of Saint Michael the archangel is super butch, defeating  Satan, for example, as he does here in this painting by Luca Giordano, who was working just a few years after Dandini.

 

 I love how Michael's arm is raised so resolutely, as if he is saying, "Sorry, Satan, this is what you get."

 

As much as I want Giordano's saint to do his job --where is he when we need him? -- it's Dandini's Michael that I love. His world weary expression, as if being a saint is not quite what it's cracked up to be. "You try leading God's army," he seems to be saying.  And then there is his languid androgyny,  the fabulous pink stole draped so flamboyantly over and around his girlish figure. The languorous and very unmasculine attitude of his hands. His wings seem almost like an annoying afterthought. (Compare them to Giordano's, so big and strong the canvas can't contain them.)

 

In 1425 or thereabouts, Saint Michael appeared to an illiterate peasant girl living in the north of France. The One Hundred Years War was raging. The angel told the girl to "be good" and that eventually with the help of Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret she would become the hero of France. That teen eventually became the girl we know as Joan of Arc. Weirdly enough, she did exactly what the saint predicted.

 

La vision et l’inspiration,  Louis-Maurice Boutet de Montvel, (1851-1913)  Apparently, sheep see this kind of thing all the time.

 

But which Michael was it? Dandini's? Or Giordano's?

 

Joan of Arc's most radical act was her preference for men's clothes, on and off the battlefield. And not just any old men's clothes but the fancy ones. The brocades. The silks, The ones adorned with furs and embroidery and  gewgaws. In other words, she was a bit of a fop.  I love that about her.

 

But this challenge to the patriarchy of the Middle Ages was too much,  in its own words, "an abomination". How many times in her trial did her inquisitors ask, "Why are you wearing men's clothes?" "Who told you to wear the clothes of men?" "Why won't you wear a dress?" At the trial's conclusion,  frightened and alone, she relented and agreed to put on a shift. But  back in her cell, she took it off and  for a final time donned the clothes that felt more natural to her. The next day, they burned her at the stake. Alive. She was nineteen.

 

More than any other single factor, it was Joan of Arc's insistence on dressing like the person she felt herself to be that led to her death.  It only seems appropriate then that the  saint who visited her first would show up decked out in his own nod to cross-dressing.

 

 

 Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII. Ingres. 1854. Four hundred years later, Ingres could not let Joan be who she was. She did not wear a skirt to the coronation.

 

 

In my new novel in verse, Voices, the Final Hours of Joan of Arc (March 2019), Saint Michael wonders if  saints actually exist.:  /They say I'm a saint. But are there such things?/ he asks. In the end, he decides it doesn't matter. I  discovered the Dandini portrait only recently, long after I finished the book,  but it seems to me an appropriate caption for it might be, "What does it matter?"

 

Indeed, what does it matter? What does it matter if there are saints if we believe in them? And what did it matter six hundred years ago if a young woman wanted to dress like a man? Or vice versa?

 

What does it matter now? 

 

Fight the good fight pals. I'd love to hear from you.

 

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