Barbara Hall has been fascinated with the life of Joan of Arc since childhood. As the creator and executive producer of the CBS series “Joan of Arcadia,” she has created a modern interpretation of the Catholic saint.
“I have a preteen [named Faith], and I was wondering what it would look like if God tried to talk to her,” Ms. Hall says. “And do teenagers today have the fortitude to follow a calling?”
People have been intrigued for centuries with Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who said God instructed her to lead the French army to victory at Orleans during the Hundred Years’ War. Burned at the stake May 30, 1431, Joan has inspired paintings, literature, movies and television.
“I realized thatthe following of her calling created not just a problem in her life, or her friends’ lives, but within her family,” Ms. Hall says. “That’s the story I wanted to tell.”
Although Joan of Arc lived almost 600 years ago, Ms. Hall says, she inspires people to grapple with the harder questions of existence. “Joan of Arcadia,” which won a People’s Choice Award as the best new TV drama, has featured episodes that explore evil, vengeance and vanity.
“Everybody has what we call ‘God shot moments’ — the voice of something bigger than you comes through,” Ms. Hall says. “But we like to call them ‘coincidences’ or ‘serendipity.’ Or we like to call them ‘weird.’ And then we get busy forgetting about them and denying them.”
“Joan of Arcadia” is part of a continuing trend of TV programs featuring tales of spirituality and contact with heavenly forces. Beginning 10 years ago with the CBS hit “Touched by an Angel,” such themes have proved especially popular with young viewers.
Also this season was the debut of the Fox series “Tru Calling,” about a young morgue employee who hears messages and discovers miraculous powers to intervene to prevent deaths. The trend prompted a TV critic for the Arizona Republic to remark, “Jesus has a slot on prime time now.”
On “Joan of Arcadia,” teenager Joan Girardi doesn’t shy away from interacting with the Almighty. Played by actress Amber Tamblyn, 21, Joan sees God appear as a cute boy or as the lunch lady. The final episode of the season airs at 8 p.m. EDT tomorrow.
“The way I played it was if I was talking to any other person,” Miss Tamblyn says. “When Joan was talking to God, she was talking to her best friend. … She didn’t treat God like the Almighty, which I think people find very funny. Truthfully, inside, we all treat God like a real person. Sometimes when we’re angry, we get angry. That’s all a part of the human trait.”
Joan of Arc described contact with the archangel Michael, St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret of Antioch beginning in about 1424, says Allen Williamson, researcher at the Joan of Arc Online Archive (www.archive.joan-of-arc.org) in St. Cloud, Minn. He says she also spoke of occasional visions of the archangel Gabriel and legions of other angels.
“Sometimes, she described only hearing the voices of her saints,” Mr. Williamson says. “Sometimes, she described seeing their faces or apparently sometimes their entire forms. … She alluded to cases in which other people saw the same visions, such as Charles de Bourbon, Count of Clermont, one of her commanders. There is also a royal patent of nobility, written in late June 1429, stating that a man named Guy de Cailly shared her visions” in Rully, France.
Joan of Arc said she was told to lift the English and Burgundian armies’ siege of Orleans and to make sure Charles VII was crowned in Rheims, France, says Mr. Williamson. Around 1428, she asked a family relative, Durand Lassois, to bring her to the garrison commander at Vaucouleurs, France, to speak with the king.
“She told him that God supported his claim to the throne over that of his English relative Henry VI,” Mr. Williamson says. “Charles had her examined by clergy at Poitiers [in 1429] to test her orthodoxy. She was accepted as valid.”
After Charles VII’s victory at Orleans on May 8, 1429, Joan of Arc became a celebrity, says Daniel Hobbins, visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. She also was credited for assisting in the crowning of Charles VII in Rheims on July 17, 1429. Mr. Hobbins has a doctorate in medieval history.
“If Joan of Arc were alive today, she would be surrounded by paparazzi,” Mr. Hobbins says. “It wasn’t the kind of thing historians invented later. She became internationally celebrated. We have evidence of news traveling fast, reporting news of this victory all over Europe.”
However, Joan of Arc was captured by the Burgundians outside the gates of Compiegne, France, on May 23, 1430. Ironically, Charles VII made no effort to rescue her, but she was ransomed by Bishop Pierre Cauchon.
Because the English and Burgundians wanted to put Joan on trial to show that her “voices” were either the result of lunacy or evil spirits, Bishop Cauchon tried her in Rouen, France, where she eventually was burned at the stake for being a heretic.
“The way she handled herself at the trial has astonished historians,” Mr. Hobbins says. “She was very shrewd. She knew when they were trying to trap her in the questions. … She stands up to her accusers. She is probably a little bit sassy. She is not intimidated. She turns questions against her accusers.”
Although there were women who were canonized around the time of the Hundred Years’ War who spoke to Jesus or Mary, Joan of Arc’s conversations with a higher power were different because they were telling her to wage war, says Bonnie Wheeler, director of medieval studies at Southern Methodist University and president of the International Joan of Arc Society.
After Joan’s death, a second trial was held from 1452 to 1456, which annulled the original verdict. About 300 witnesses testified about her character. She eventually was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV.
Portrayed in famed paintings by Rubens and Ingres, Joan appears as a villainess in Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” was lauded by Mark Twain and has been depicted in many films, including “The Messenger” in 1999.
“She has enticed us with everything we want to know about heroism and stamina,” Ms. Wheeler says. “It’s fascinating to think about the story of a young woman from a peasant background who suffered for her beliefs. She is so determined that she is able to convince seasoned warriors to follow her into battle because she knows that she is being propelled by God.”