For want of a better plan, I followed a bunch of them in the direction of the 16th-century Cathédrale Sainte-Croix, down Rue Jeanne-d’Arc — a grand, straight stretch of a road. Banners and flags fluttered from buildings on both sides; the town was getting ready to celebrate Joan of Arc Day later that week and was putting its best face on.
I could hear snatches of choral music as I walked along, and then I looked up and saw it: the pale stone gothic cathedral with its wedding cake-like twin spires bathed in colour. Midnight-blue and russet-orange washed its walls. Golden fleur de lys shimmered on the archways.
Walking closer, the music grew louder; an angelic choir swooped along to the stirring cinematic sound of an orchestra. I walked to the cathedral steps and looked left. The cobbled streets alongside were flooded with violet and rose light. On the wall, a giant screen with shifting images of Joan of Arc. There was a small tent selling wine and people sitting in rows of chairs facing the screen. I paid €3 for a glass of white and found a seat.
The theme was 600 images of Joan to coincide with the 600th anniversary of her death. Here she was: Joan as a horn-rimmed glasses-wearing hipster; an Andy Warhol-esque Joan, repeated over and over; Rubenesque reclining Joan; pouting Christ-like cherub Joan; short haired; long haired; a redhead; blonde or brunette, hair cropped in a pageboy bob. Here was Joan selling sardines on a can; here pushing US war bonds from a 1940s poster.
It occurred to me that Joan was whoever and whatever you wanted her to be. That morning I’d seen statues of her in armour as a warrior and sculptures showing her corseted as a maid. To the Left she represented the idea that you could rise from humble beginnings and take on a king, to the Right she was a militarised powerhouse. And the truth? Lost in history, but probably somewhere in between.
I sipped my wine and relished the feeling of being alone but sharing the enjoyment of the night with the crowd. The music and heavenly chorus swelled to a crescendo. Somewhere among the 600 pictures, the only true image of Joan, dating from 1429: a pencil sketch scribbled on the margin of the register of the Parlement de Paris by a clerk, Clément de Fauquembergue. This Joan has long, curled hair, wears a dress and carries a sword; no iconic page-boy bob nor silver armour. This Joan bears no resemblance to the one of popular legend. So in Orléans, like John Ford said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”