Like Ice, Like Fire
(Addressing The Night in ‘Visions of Johanna’)

by J. R. Stokes


Part 19. Back to the drawing board

In those pleasantly average days before our airwaves were bombarded with wall-to-wall jingoism and floor-to-ceiling propaganda, I started writing a series of articles about ‘Visions of Johanna'. I always appreciated the enormity of the task because ‘Visions of Johanna' is such an enormous song: enormous in its popularity among all the songs in Dylan’s vast canon of work and enormous in its influence on every popular song that came after it. As I progressed past the first 33,000 words or so I realised that my interpretation of the song was becoming more and more visual, i.e. the characters and circumstances that I found in the song were forming themselves into a collage. In part 13 of the series I confessed: “ I suppose that I am trying to paint a picture of the song where characters are my brush strokes, circumstances are the colours that I use and one young lady, not much more than a girl, is my canvas”. 

Nothing much has changed over the ensuing 5 parts in this series of articles: that young lady is still my canvas and the mainstay of my interpretation of the song. She has however been joined by various other characters who have been introduced to support, nay illustrate, my view of the song. For the purpose of my continued exploration of the song, I wish to add a few more characters so that the collage becomes wider and more complicated. 

My next characters then  are two women who are specifically mentioned in the song. From the aspect of building a visual experience of ‘Visions of Johanna' I would point out that just the mention of these two names will immediately create an image in the mind, for they are famous icons.  After I have declared their names, I invite you to close your eyes and you will immediately see the faces of these two women.  So, without further ado I paint them in: 

4. Enter the Madonna and the Mona Lisa

In part 16 of this series of articles, I dealt at some length with Paul Williams’ deliberations on Dylan’s show at the Tramps Club in Manhattan on the 26th July 1999 where Dylan replaced his ‘visions of Johanna’ with ‘visions of Madonna’. For this performance only, Paul renamed the song Visions of Madonna and he masterfully summed up the performance  as follows: 

‘The master of language can also be a master of non-verbal language. And on this July ’99 ‘Visions of Madonna’, as on the Feb.’66 ‘Visions of Johanna’, the two work together to produce a transcendent work of art’. 

I would like to dwell for a while in front of my canvas here and consider that expression ‘Visions of Madonna’ because it has a universal connotation and it underlines, should there be any doubt, exactly which ‘Madonna’ I think we are talking about. I mention this because it has been suggested that the ‘Madonna’ referred to was Joan Baez. Indeed in her song ‘Diamonds and Rust’ which has been interpreted as having biographical references to her liaison with Dylan, she  includes the lines:

‘the Madonna was yours for free’ 

I have however dealt quite  thoroughly with the claim to fame of Joan Baez in the terms of the song ‘Visions of Johanna'(126) and all I have to say again here is that, because of her very name,  Joan came close but the inspiration behind the song came, in my view,  from a different Joan. (As an aside, I found it a little amusing that, when announcing news of Joan’s tour and the release of her new album in March 2003, the newspaper The Buffalo News proclaimed the events under the banner ‘Joan of March’!). 

In the original version of the song Dylan doesn’t of course sing, in that final line, ‘visions of Madonna’ but, who knows, perhaps at Tramps in 1999 he was correcting his manuscript. In any event, there are many who have claimed to have had  ‘visions of Madonna’. Those claims have been treated with such overwhelming importance that holy shrines have been established at the site of the visions and pilgrimages to those holy shrines have brought  immense comfort to many millions of people.  This is what I mean when I say that the expression ‘Visions of Madonna’ has a universal connotation; indeed if a peasant girl in Portugal is blessed with such a vision on a Sunday, then the entire world would probably know about it on Monday. If I adopt that universal connotation in my interpretation of ‘Visions of Johanna', then the ‘Madonna’ we are referring to is the Virgin Mary, Mother of God: an immensely powerful female figure, an icon that represents supreme piety and the woman at the head of the Roman Catholic Church.  

Let me then set Dylan’s ‘Madonna’ free from the final verse of ‘Visions of Johanna' and treat her, in my picture of the song, as the Virgin Mary.  Let me then break that name down further and state the utterly bleeding obvious that what makes the name so recognisable to the character is the first part of the name, i.e. ‘Virgin’.  This is then the most important part of the name and of course it refers to the Christian belief that the plain Mary was the subject of a human miracle in that she conceived and gave birth to the Son of God whist she was still a virgin. Mary is just plain Mary but the Virgin Mary is something else. It is this aspect of virginity that gives her such worldly importance. 

I now present a double image on my canvas.  The first image is of the Madonna –in  the form of the Virgin Mary and, standing next to her, is my image of  ‘Johanna’ in the form of Joan of Arc. What enjoins these two images, so that they almost become one, is their most important characteristics- their virginity. 

In her book ‘Joan of Arc’ – The Image of Female Heroism’(127) the author Marina Warner makes certain observations regarding the way that Joan wished others to see her. Joan was in fact illiterate and she was known by many names. But, as Marina Warner records: 

‘In the evidence of  (her) trial and in Joan’s letters that have survived, written at her dictation with her guided, uncertain signature appended in some cases, there is only one name she used, and that is Jehanne la Pucelle’. (128) 

The author then goes on to explain why Joan chose that particular surname ‘Pucelle for herself: 

‘Pucelle means ‘virgin’ but in a special way, with distinct shades connoting youth, innocence and, paradoxically nubility. It is the equivalent of the Hebrew ‘almah, used of both the Virgin Mary and the dancing girls in Solomon’s harem in the Bible.’(128) 

But perhaps there was more to the choice of the word ‘Pucelle as a surname than is immediately understood: 

‘With a instinct for seizing a central image of power, which Joan possessed to an extraordinarily developed degree, she picked a word for virginity that captured with double strength the magic of her state in her culture. It expressed not only the incorruption of her body, but also the dangerous border into maturity or full womanhood that she had not crossed or would not cross. 

Her virginity was magic. ….It was magic because of the long Christian tradition that held since the second century that the inviolate body of a woman was one of the holiest things possible in creation, holier than the chastity of a man, who anatomically cannot achieve the same physical image of spiritual integrity as a woman.  The virginal ideal also flourished under the influence of the cult of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, who, in the early fifteenth century, was seen above all as a powerful and merciful intercessor, who could grant humanity forgiveness through the purity she had preserved, even in childbirth’.(129) 

Marina Warner also makes reference to certain writings where Joan was described as  having miraculous powers as a result of her virginity and she provides a few anecdotes about the fate of those who sought to  alter Joan’s status. One story recorded that: 

‘Whenever anyone looked upon her with impurity or thought dirty thoughts  about her he was immediately struck impotent forever.’(130) 

And what happened to other unchaste sinners who had designs on unprotected females: 

‘Rooted to the spot, dumb, paralysed, blind or otherwise stricken, they are for the most part forced to repent, usually by the purifying magic of the virgin mother of God. In Joan’s case, the magic of her inviolate body, reflecting that of the Virgin Mary’s, exercised  wonderfully the minds of her contemporaries’.(130) 

I am going off a little at a tangent here but the following observation by the author brings into focus the line from ‘Visions of Johanna' where Dylan refers to ‘Madonna’: 

Jean d’Aulon, (Joans squire) thought that Joan never menstruated: “I’ve heard it said by many women who saw the Maid undressed many times and knew her secrets, that she never suffered from the secret illness of women and that no one could ever notice or learn anything of it from her clothes or in any other way”. This inference, circumstantial as it is, becomes an accepted aspect of Joan’s power and uniqueness’(130) 

A reminder of the line: 

‘And Madonna she still has not showed’  

It is not only in the perceived power arising from their common virginity that the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc have been stable mated. They have also both been depicted in historic art works by the use of similar imagery, in particular with regard to battle dress. Marina Warner observes further: 

‘The metaphor of chivalry tugs with such force at the minds of the age that even the Virgin Mary sometimes appears at the time in full armour, in her aspect as The Tower of David, “whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men” one of her titles from the litany of Loreto that is taken from the Bible (Song of Solomon 4:4). The Virgin is like the bride, “fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners” (Song of Solomon 6:10).   In the Albrecht altar painted in Mary’s honour before 1440, possibly while Joan was alive, the Virgin wears mail shirt and breastplate, gauntlets and leg pieces of armour under a voluminous mantle. Her fine wavy blonde hair spills down her back. Behind her stand two knights with rainbow wings carrying shields. It is not surprising that she, like so many other images , was identified as Joan of Arc.”(131)  

This tantalising reference to artistic imagery brings me back with a jolt to my own canvas. That double take of the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc has now almost merged into one image and thus the ‘Madonna’ in ‘Visions of Johanna' has been firmly fixed into my painting.  There is however the face of another woman who now appears and has to be dealt with. It is the face that looks out from probably the most famous painting in the world. She is not quite ready yet, but in my next instalment I will ask her to enter into my own frame. In the meantime I can only dream about…….the Mona Lisa.

126 Freewheelin’207. Part 16 ‘Like Ice Like Fire’
127Joan of Arc –The Image of Female Heroism by Marina Warner. First published by Weidenfield and Nicholson in 1981
128 ibid page 22
129 ibid page 24
130 ibid page 19
131 ibid page 235