Winter 1997

Joan of Arc Resumes Her Haunting Vigil
by Teresa Brumback

JMU's Joan of Arc statue, a universal and controversial icon to female martyrdom, has been a haunting presence around campus since its arrival in 1917. In its statue form, this symbol - representing female suffering to some, heroism to others - has been victim of more modern forms of abuse. But at last, "Joan" may find some peace.

Since her arrival on campus, presumably as a gift from Julian E. Burruss, president of JMU when it was the State Normal School for Women at Harrisonburg, the statue has appeared in various locations. First it posed in Harrison Hall, then, beginning in 1939 in the old Madison Memorial Library lobby, and later in Alumnae Hall and Wilson Hall. Since the 1970s, Joan has graced the lobby of Duke Hall.

Steeped in mystery and obscurity of sorts, and the victim of student graffiti as well as normal aging, Joan's appearance until recently showed the wear and tear of decades.

But due to a major restoration by volunteers and campus staff members, the plaster statue has gotten a fresh, updated look. Her gypsy days appear to be over, say her caretakers, and now she has a permanent resting place in her earlier home in the old lobby on the first floor of Carrier Library.

Before her makeover, with chipped beige paint on her serene face, and telltale Magic Marker stains of student-drawn hearts and "Mom" tattoos, a forlorn Joan was less than a radiant symbol of feminine courage and spirit.

As Howard A. "Tom" Thomas ('87) began her restoration, he discovered the interior of the statue was composed of a mixture of plaster reinforced with horse hair, which he left in place. He stripped and sanded her former dull beige body of two old, flaking layers of paint and repainted it a pearl color to closely resemble her original appearance. For future restorationists and historians, he placed a "time capsule" inside the statue, containing information on materials and techniques used in the latest restoration, as well as all the historical information and correspondence related to Joan that JMU officials could compile.

Joan's makeover was unveiled recently without ceremony. Her 1996 restoration was made possible in part by the family of Elizabeth Katherine Miller Aigner ('19).

Helping to unravel and share the story of Joan's history is Julia Merkel, assistant curator of the JMU Foundation collection. Merkel says that Joan's benefactor, Aigner, remembers the statue as an important icon on the campus during her student days and that Aigner had taken a special interest in the statue.

Joan's facelift and new home might be viewed as a harmonious resolution to her mysterious past, which is hinted at in press clippings and correspondence about the statue, including a news item in the Jan. 15, 1917, issue of the Daily News-Record.

The statue, according to that story, was presented as a gift from Burruss, and was described as a copy of the statue by Chapau, which "represents her as a simple maid of Domremy, listening to her voices. It stands on a pedestal in the center of the hall of the Student Building as an inspiration to all womankind," the article states.

Fred Hilton, JMU's director of media relations, has fielded questions about Joan's origins from other Virginia campuses inquiring about the "Joan" statues. He says the 1917 account contains a tiny inaccuracy.

"According to my research, the sculptor of the original Jeanne d'Arc in 1870 was Henri-Michel-Antoine Chapu" (not "Chapau."), Hilton wrote in a 1993 letter on the subject of Joan to Mary Washington College.

Chapu represented Joan as a simple peasant in his original marble sculpture dated 1870-1872, which is on view in the City Hall of Amboise in the Musee du Louvre in Paris.

Four known plaster copies of the original marble statue reside in Virginia at the former state teachers' colleges: Madison, Longwood, Mary Washington and Radford. They are believed to be gifts from the French government in appreciation of war relief efforts during World War I. Still, no written records have been found to validate this theory, according to The Mary Washington Bullet.

Another issue of the Bullet again brought the statue's origin into question. According to Jeff Stoffa, a student at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., Stoffa's great-great-grandfather Petro Poalo Caproni, born in Barga, Italy, in 1862, cast the replica of Joan of Arc. Caproni's artisans would have covered the statue with hundreds of paper-thin tin sheets, pressing them along the contours of the figure to produce an exact replica, Stoffa wrote. A plaster cast was made and then sold, largely to public schools, colleges, libraries, museums, symphony halls and wealthy patrons of the arts.

Caproni was honored for bringing classical sculpture to the average American. During the 1960s, however, art students "destroyed much of my great-great-grandfather's work, throwing parties where the statues were hurled down elevator shafts and out windows," wrote Stoffa. He described the students' actions as rebellion against the pressure to conform to classical standards.

Whether these same manifestations of rebellion were a motivating factor in students' etching graffiti on JMU's Joan over the years is unclear.

But one thing is certain - the JMU sculpture is not a Caproni cast, since it does not bear a cast maker's mark, Merkel says. Merkel believes the sculpture began as an illegal copy of the Chapu statue.

"My theory is that it is a gift from the French government, as they confiscated illegal copies which would not bear a cast maker mark or seal for obvious reasons. Would the government destroy illegal copies of its own patron saint? Probably not. So gifts to American institutions are a likely solution," Merkel explains.

At JMU, Joan has survived even nearly having been sold at public auction in 1978, according to Hilton, who said that "Someone recognized Joan and saved her from the auction block."

In her now-permanent location, Joan's importance in history is described by Merkel. In France, Joan is regarded as a heroine. She fought as a soldier for her country. But in demure statue form, "Her portrayal is youthful and innocent, an appearance that would pre-date her soldiering and impending martyrdom," says Merkel.

When then-President Burruss dedicated the statue on campus in 1917, he referred to Joan of Arc as "representing the high ideals of womanhood," according to one account. Whether he referred to beauty, courage, sacrifice or a combination thereof, remains a mystery in Joan.

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