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Q and Art: Symbols
April 13, 2012

This post is part of an ongoing series on Eye Level: "Q and Art," where American Art's Research department brings you interesting questions and answers about art and artists from our archive.


J. William Fosdick's Adoration of St. Joan of Arc

Question: What is Joan of Arc holding in her left hand? It looks like a mop, but I don't think that's the right answer.

Detail showing distaff

Detail showing the distaff.

Answer: In J. William Fosdick's 1896 wood relief Adoration of St. Joan of Arc, Joan holds a sword in her right hand and a distaff in the left. A distaff is the staff used to hold flax or wool when spinning yarn. It is also a traditional symbol of women and women's work. According to the Dictionary of Women in Religious Art the distaff is associated with weaving "and by extension gestation of an idea or new life." Other women connected with the distaff include the goddess Athena; one of the Three Fates, Clotho; and the Biblical characters Eve and Mary.

Another of the many symbols included in Fosdick's artwork is the fleur-de-lis, seen on the shield at St. Joan's feet. This stylized lily represents the French monarchy. During the Hundred Years War the French throne was at risk of being taken by the British. Joan of Arc led the French military in several battles against the British and made it possible for the heir Charles VII to be crowned king of France. Although St. Joan is a historical figure, many artists have used her image to express a variety of ideas. For information about the use of Joan of Arc as a symbol in literature and art at the turn of the twentieth century, read the exhibition label for this work, which is available on the museum's website.

The story of the Joan of Arc sculpture by Anna Hyatt Huntington is told in this post from the Smithsonian's Collections Search Center blog.

Posted by Alida on April 13, 2012 in Q and Art


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