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(Photos by Beth Donze, Clarion Herald; and courtesy of the Piras family)
By BETH DONZE
The 6-foot-tall canvas depicts a teenage girl in the midst of a simple task – harvesting radishes in a garden of lilies and irises.
The aproned young woman could be any young farmhand getting her hands dirty, but the artwork’s saintly dioramas, decorative fleurs-de-lis and shimmering halo suggest that this is no ordinary girl.
The subject is St. Joan of Arc, the down-to-earth Maid of Orleans, at work at her family’s farm in France.
The magnificent oil portrait of St. Joan – a far cry from the armored soldier the public has come to know through almost every other artistic rendering of her – was formally unveiled this weekend at her namesake St. Joan of Arc Church in LaPlace, in conjunction with the parish’s 75th Anniversary Mass.
Blair Gordy Piras, the Covington-based sacred artist who was commissioned to execute the portrait through a grant provided by the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ St. Louis IX Art Society, a ministry committed to fostering appreciation for sacred art and supporting those who create it.
“It was an opportunity to get to know (St. Joan of Arc) and grow in friendship with her,” Piras said.
To prepare for the commission, Piras read Mark Twain’s 1895 biography of St. Joan, which recounted the saintly “voices” that fortified her during her relatively short life from 1412-1431.
“The background (of the painting) is kind of a tapestry of her story and the inspirations she received,” Piras explained, pointing to the cast of miniature saints hovering near the large central figure of St. Joan:
• St. Michael the Archangel, seen at St. Joan’s right shoulder, was the first saint to “visit” young Joan and inspired the painting’s overarching theme of a girl who is suddenly interrupted while harvesting vegetables.
“During her trial, St. Joan reported being in her family’s garden and hearing the voice of St. Michael,” Piras said. “St. Michael instructed her that she was going to have this grand mission and take up arms, and he gave her specific instructions.”
• Two other saints who were close to St. Joan of Arc – both of them virgin martyrs – appear near the maiden’s left shoulder: St. Margaret of Antioch is presented in her traditional artistic mode of stabbing a demon, while St. Catherine of Alexandria is shown touching a spiked wheel, the instrument on which she was executed.
“St. Catherine holds a sword, because she is connected with the legend of St. Joan’s own sword,” explained Piras, sharing the story of how St. Catherine told St. Joan to look for her battle sword under a specific church.
“The sword was found under the altar, the priest cleaned it of rust and St. Joan carried it into battle,” Piras said. “It was a blunt sword,” she added, pointing to the tip of the weapon in her painting. “St. Joan never killed anyone.”
Jesus and Mary, always with her
The figures at the top of the painting remind viewers of the two major components of St. Joan’s “spiritual armor” – Mary and Christ.
• To express Mary’s protective care for St. Joan, Piras painted the Annunciation scene, in which Mary is told that she will give birth to Jesus. The Holy Spirit, symbolized by a dove, showers Mary – and St. Joan below – with golden rays of light.
• To depict Christ, Piras painted Christ enthroned in heaven, a portrayal of him that is commonly included in “Last Judgment” scenes. Christ, who is seated between two angels, is backed by a rainbow that symbolizes the hope of salvation.
“St. Joan’s angels told her to put (these images of Mary and Jesus) onto her battle flag, so they’re part of her history,” Piras said. “It’s very interesting to me, as an artist, because when St. Joan was questioned (by the 15th-century artist who made her banner) about how she wanted Mary and Jesus to be portrayed, she responded that she wanted them to be portrayed as they appeared in churches. That’s why the background is done in the style of a medieval painting – artists at that time were just starting to develop a more realistic representation of people, but still harkening back to that earlier iconography.”
The project, which took Piras about two and a half months to complete, was made possible by the society’s “St. Louis IX Art Fund,” which pays for original works of religious art to be installed at parishes and schools that are either under-resourced or have experienced a major challenge.
Upon learning of the ministry’s offer to fund a work of art for his Hurricane Ida-damaged parish, St. Joan of Arc’s pastor, Father David Ducote, asked Piras to do a fresh take on St. Joan – as the hardworking and faithful daughter from rural France rather than the soldier.
“It was important to Father David that this piece really speak to his parishioners, that she was just an ordinary girl who followed the call that God set before her and was faithful to that,” Piras said.
St. Francisville-born Piras, the owner of Blair Barlow Art, honed her craft at the Sacred Art School in Florence, Italy. To “localize” her painting of St. Joan, Piras included plants found growing around her home church of St. Joseph Abbey, where her brother is a monk. In addition to being inspired by the jewel-toned irises that thrive next to the abbey’s pond, Piras gave painterly nods to its bounty of lilies, collard greens and red clover. Radishes, while not grown on abbey grounds, were included in her composition as a matter of practicality.
“I was just looking for a smaller vegetable that was also native to France,” Piras said. “But the main purpose of seeing St. Joan in the garden is to illustrate this moment in time as she’s working. She’s pulling up the vegetables – we can see the empty holes in the ground – and she’s suddenly interrupted by the voice of St. Michael. The radishes have rolled out of her hand. She has one hand open in reception (of St. Michael’s message), and the other hand touching her heart.”
One of the painting’s most intricate details – St. Joan’s halo – is yet another “teaching moment.” It bears the inscription: “Jehanne la Pucelle” – Medieval French for “Joan the Maid.”
“This (signature) was taken directly from manuscripts that St. Joan signed herself,” Piras said. “She couldn’t write herself – she had a scribe – but she did sign her name.”
The artist said she is keeping one detail of the painting close to her vest: the identity of the model who sat for the portrait.
“She is a very prayerful person, and that really comes through,” Piras said. “She just has an inner peace and connection to God, and when you’re painting someone who’s right in front of you, you have that challenge to really reverence the holiness of God in that person.”
Funding for the painting was made possible through the St. Louis IX Art Fund with generous donations from Joseph and Sue Ellen Canizaro, Matthew Maurin and St. Catherine of Siena KC Council No. 12686.
The portrait of St. Joan is the first commission funded by the St. Louis IX Art Fund for the archdiocese. Earlier this year, the fund commissioned a painting by society artist Jaclyn Warren for Holy Family School in Port Allen (in the Diocese of Baton Rouge) entitled “The Extended Holy Family Celebrates Passover.” To learn more about the St. Louis IX Art Society, including ways to donate to the art fund, visit sl9art.com.