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The Burghers of Calais

“The Burghers of Calais,” is a large, well known public sculpture by the artist Auguste Rodin. The original casting was commissioned by the French town of Calais. The work commemorates an incident that took place during the Hundred Years’ War. Rodin based his sculpture off the accounts of court historian Jean Froissart. There is speculation that Froissart’s story is more myth than fact.

History Behind the Sculpture

In 1346, the English laid siege to the strategic, seaside village of Calais. Several months into the siege, the English gave the town an ultimatum. They would spare the city’s inhabitants, if Calais would send six men out for execution.

Meet a Burgher, or two.

The first Burgher (think of them as councilmen) to volunteer his life was Eustache de Saint Pierre. Rodin put this de facto leader into the center of his sculpture, and portrayed him with a full beard. The figure holding the key was dubbed Jean d’Aire, another prominent citizen.

How does the story end?

The Burghers were told to leave the city with their feet, and heads bare as a sign of humility, they were to bring the keys to the city with them, and wear nooses around their necks. According to Froissart, Philippa of Hainault, the Queen of England, convinced her husband to spare the six Burghers. While the people of Calais were saved, the city would not fully return to French rule until 1562.

Rodin’s story

The mythic tone of the Froissart’s story turns these men into selfless, idealized heroes. While Rodin used the same facts as Froissart, he chose to tell a different story. His Burghers convey a raw humanity that any viewer can relate to. While the scene depicts a group, there is no connection between these individuals. Each man faces his own fear and mortality. Their bodies are tense, their faces contorted in anguish. You can find a full size cast of “The Burghers of Calais” on a grassy plinth in the Hirshhorn Museum Sculpture Garden. A small scale model of Jean d’Aire is among the Rodin works at the National Gallery of Art. Small sculptures of both d’Aire, and Eustache de Saint Pierre are part of the collection at the Kreeger Museum.

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