This piece of sculpture, or more correctly, collection of pieces of sculpture, has always appealed to me, from the time when I saw some smaller versions many years ago. The figure in the group that I have found particularly moving and striking in an understated way is the male with his head buried in his hands. Is he afraid? Is he grieving? What would inspire such sadness, fear or grief?
The work is by Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917) and is called The Burghers of Calais. For the benefit of younger readers, including my two sons, the burghers referred to are not the sort made by McDonalds but members of the urban middle class. It is a common Dutch word to refer to the middle level income and well to do citizens of towns and cities, I remember it being a standard part of converstaions in Dutch by, and with, my parents as I was growing up. The term, in Dutch, had connotations of prosperity, civic standing and ample girths.
Some years ago I looked up the story depicted by the figures and that story came to mind recently when I used the term “burghers” without thinking to refer to the citizens of my local town.
Here are some facts and items of interest about the work:
The work is a monument to an event that occurred in 1347 during the Hundred Years’ War when the French port of Calais was under siege by the English under Edward III. The siege lasted for over a year with the French refusing to concede, having been instructed by their King, Phillip V1, to hold out at all costs. The French were eventually forced to negotiate a surrender, the city having been decimated by starvation and disease.
Edward 111 made an offer: send out six of their top leaders in sackcloth, wearing nooses around their necks and carrying the keys to the city. These men would be executed and the city would be spared. Six of the wealthier city leaders volunteered and complied with the conditions, led out by Eustache de Saint Pierre.
Rodin’s group of figures shows them emaciated, afraid, despairing, yet willing to go to their deaths to save their families and loved ones, the city and its citizens. It is a mixture of heroic self sacrifice, defeat and fear, pain and doubt but also conviction and determination. The “heroes” are depicted as complex, conflicted individuals.
In real life the lives of the burghers were spared after Edward’s wife, Philippa of Hainault, persuaded her husband to be merciful by convincing him that the burghers' deaths would be a bad omen for their unborn child.
The Mayor of Calais commissioned the monument for the town square in 1880 and it was completed in 1889. France had suffered great losses in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and the work was based on the idea of sacrifice, the scrifice of the Burghers of Calais and the sacrifice of young men who had lost their lives in the Franco-Prussian War.
Because the Burghers are portrayed as fearful, sullen and worn rather than proud, defiant and heroic, the work was controversial in its day. It was further controversial in having the figures at eye level rather than raised on a pedestal. ((In 1924 the city council of Calais did display the work on a raised base, contrary to Rodin’s specific wishes).
The figures are slightly smaller than life size.
Under French law, no more than 12 castings were allowed of the original work after Rodin’s death. The original casting remains in Calais, the others are distributed in various places throughout the world. The National Art Gallery in Canberra has a number of the figures but these are not from the original casting.
Interestingly, some places choose to display the figures grouped, others to have the figures widely spaced and separated, for example, the figures at Stanford University (also not part of the original casting):
Rodin’s own words on the work:
I have not shown them grouped in a triumphant apotheosis, such a glorification of their heroism would not have corresponded to anything real. On the contrary, I have, as it were, threaded them one behind the other, because in the indecision of that last inner combat which ensues between their cause and their fear of dying, each of them is isolated in front of his conscience. They are still questioning themselves to know if they have the strength to accomplish the supreme sacrifice — their soul pushes them onward, but their feet refuse to walk. They drag themselves along painfully, as much because of the feebleness to which famine has reduced them as because of the terrifying nature of the sacrifice … If I have succeeded in showing how much the body, weakened by the most cruel sufferings, still holds on to life, how much power it still has over the spirit that is consumed with bravery, I congratulate myself on not having remained beneath the noble theme I have dealt with.