I pass by Rodin’s sculpture of the Burghers of Calais every morning on my way to work. It’s a difficult sculpture for a modern viewer to access. Who were the Burghers of Calais, anyway? And why do these men look haggard and miserable?
The story is as old as the Hundred Years’ War. The city of Calais had been under siege for 11 months, and conditions were dire. King Edward III offered terms: he would spare the city if six of the most important men (burghers) surrendered themselves, dressed in plainclothes and wearing nooses around their necks. He intended to kill them, and they knew it. Six men volunteered. Stripping themselves of all the finery that set them apart as rich or important, they donned nooses and left the city, walking barefoot toward the enemy encampment and certain death.
Rodin chose to sculpt this moment–when each man’s love of his city grapples with his own fear of death. They wear only loose tunics, garments which hang on them like beggars’ rags. Their skin is stretched taught, revealing skeletal cheekbones and sunken eyes. These men are heroes, not gods, and Rodin emphasizes the pain of their struggle as the defining moment of bravery. Writing to Paul Gsell, he explained,
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… 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.
Each figure has a different struggle, but all are noble and all are pitiable. The oldest in the group (Jean d’Aire) bears the key to the city, an emblem of the cause of their noble sacrifice. His entire body is rigid with resolve: he faces death, but must brace himself. The key is enormous, a considerable weight and burden which must be born.
The posture of the central figure (Eustache de Saint-Pierre) is similar. His arms are slightly raised, as if they are guiding his steps forward. His eyes are downcast but he still holds his head up. His stance acknowledges defeat, but does so honorably and without flinching.
To his right (our left) is the most famous pose of the group. The young man (Pierre de Wiessant) turns aside, his head downcast, his right arm gesturing questioningly before his face. Reminiscent of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be”, this figure finds surrender more difficult. Just behind him, a fourth burgher (Jean de Fiennes) walks slowly, his arms slightly extended in a feeble plea for an easier fate.
Hidden from our view by Eustache, a fifth man (Jacques de Wiessant) hesitates slightly as he walks, brow furrowed as he contemplates the end that is sure to come. The sixth and final figure (Andrieu d’Andres) is the most heart-rending. He leans forward, toward death, but buries his head in his hands, grieving the family whom he leaves behind.
The nooses round the men’s necks are ambiguous: at times they are draped like medals and decorative cords, at others they appear snakelike and threatening. Sometimes the rope just hangs limp, as helpless as its bearer. These cords are at once medallions and death sentences, badges of honor and yokes of shame.
The figures are cast in bronze, slightly over life-size. Rodin wanted to install them without pedestals (much like our Korean War memorial in DC) but was not permitted. He wrote:
I wanted them to be placed on the paving stones of the square in front of the town hall in Calais so that it looked as if they were leaving in order to go to the enemy camp. In this way they would have been mixed with the daily life of the town: passersby would have elbowed them, and they would have felt through this contact the emotion of the living past in their midst.
Though these heroes were willing to die for their city, they were not required to. As it turned out, the English queen talked the king out of executing them. Jean Froissart recorded the incident, and its unexpected ending:
The queen of England, who at that time was very big with child, fell on her knees, and with tears said, “…I most humbly ask as a gift… that you will be merciful to these six men.”
The king looked at her for some time in silence, and then said; “… you have entreated in such a manner that I cannot refuse you; I therefore give them to you, to do as you please with them.” The queen conducted the six citizens to her apartments, and had the halters taken from round their necks, after which she new clothed them, and served them with a plentiful dinner: she then presented each with six nobles, and had them escorted out of the camp in safety.