What I noticed first about the equestrian monument to Joan of Arc on Manhattan’s West Side, as I approached from a pedestrian path in the small park named for the French patriot, is that she and her horse were not noticeable.
The tall, sand-colored granite pedestal stood out instead. Joan and the steed she rides are cast in dark bronze and shrouded by surrounding trees. Yet these obstructions, absent when the monument was unveiled more than a century ago, actually enhance the experience of contemplating this stately work of art.
Curious first-time visitors like me are enticed into the knoll-like park, the overgrown branches and leaves heightening the intrigue about what exactly is perched atop the pedestal. We enter a relatively secluded setting — the most intimate I’ve encountered for a monument in the otherwise bustling city — which adds to its distinction.
Jeanne La Pucelle, known to history as Joan of Arc (1411–1431), was a French peasant girl driven by alleged divine inspiration to expel the English from Orleans in 1429, and King Charles VII had her command a provisional army toward that mission. But the youthful warrior would ultimately burn at the stake after she was captured, sold to the English and charged with witchcraft and heresy, setting the stage for her status as a martyr.
The sculpture in the park on Riverside Drive features an armor-clad Joan riding a trotting horse with animated eyes and flaring nostrils. She holds a sword aloft and looks heavenward while leading men into battle against the English. Joan’s sword, I learned from art writer Dianne Durante’s book Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan, is legendary. The divine voices she heard told her where to find that weapon once wielded by Charlemagne.
“That gives it both patriotic and religious significance: Charlemagne was one of France’s most famous early kings, and in A.D. 800 the pope crowned him first Holy Roman Emperor,” Durante writes in her analysis of the statue. (p. 264)
When I stepped onto the cobblestone that surrounds the 20-foot-tall monument, a closer look at the Mohegan granite pedestal revealed Gothic arches and coats of arms, evoking the medieval period when Joan battled the English. I had to drop my head back to get a better view of the sculpture. A semi-circular stone bench, though, invites visitors to step back, sit and contemplate the art.
The need to look up to Joan like this, Durante writes, “has metaphorical as well as literal significance: she’s presented as a hero, not Everyman.” (p. 265)
Durante identifies both courage and leadership as the young patriot’s most enduring virtues, and when formulating the sculpture’s theme she notes that Joan “fought passionately for her God and her country, and inspired others to fight for them as well.” (p. 266)
A set of concrete steps behind the monument, which align with 93rd Street, sets it further apart from an already quiet neighborhood. But Joan and her horse were not always so secluded.
In 1909, a committee for a Joan of Arc monument formed in New York City. The committee awarded sculptor Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973) the commission and architect John van Pelt would design the pedestal that features some limestone blocks from a tower where Joan was imprisoned in Rouen, according to New York City Parks. The monument was unveiled at a ceremony on December 6, 1915.
A black-and-white photo of this event reveals that infant trees were already in place at the site. As the NYC Parks’ website notes: “Van Pelt situated the monument at the top of the steps in the park island at 93rd Street and Riverside, and had planted a screen of trees to disguise the buildings.”
The creators of this monument clearly wanted the trees to become apart of the experience of visiting, observing and admiring this inspiring work of art, and they likely wanted to produce a distinct setting. If so, with time and growth, they got one.