The Burghers of Calais (1895) by Auguste Rodin was originally commissioned by the city of Calais to celebrate a local hero. It then became part of the national culture of the Third Republic, and it can today be found all over the world. This article tells the story of how this statue came into being and also attempts to address the issue of why it has become so popular and why it seems to speak so directly to universalism. Apart from the fact that The Burghers of Calais is an extremely well executed and very inspired piece of art, this monument, I argue, also has to have another quality in order to become so popular. This quality, I suggest, is related to a new way of understanding and depicting heroism. Rodin centered The Burghers of Calais around a modern version of heroism that can be termed ‘civic heroism’, which draws on the collective and civic courage of the average person (Zivil-courage), rather than on the physical courage of the single and outstanding individual. Or, to put it differently, Rodin turned the statue into a democratic exemplum.
The Burghers of Calais, commemorating an episode during the Hundred Years' War between England and France, is probably the best and certainly the most successful of Rodin's public monuments. Rodin closely followed the account of the French chronicler Jean Froissart (1333 or 1337–after 1400) stating that six of the principal citizens of Calais were ordered to come out of the besieged city with heads and feet bare, ropes around their necks, and the keys of the town and the castle in their hands. They were brought before the English king Edward III (1312–1377), who ordered their beheading.
Rodin portrayed them at the moment of departure from their city led by Eustache de Saint-Pierre, the bearded man in the middle of the group. At his side, Jean d'Aire carries a giant-sized key. Their oversized feet are bare, several have ropes around their necks, and all are in various states of despair, expecting imminent death and unaware that their lives will ultimately be saved by the intercession of the English queen Philippa.
The arrangement of the group, with its unorthodox massing and subtle internal rhythms, was not easily settled, and the completed monument, cast in bronze by the LeBlanc-Bardedienne foundry, was not unveiled in Calais until 1895. The Metropolitan Museum's bronze is a lost-wax cast made from the plaster model in the Musée Rodin in Paris.
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