Rodin, Auguste (French, 1840 – 1917)

The Burghers of Calais

Reference Type:
1884-95 (cast 1919-1921)
This scene is based on an historical event that occurred in the year 1367, when King Edward III of England started his invasion of France with a siege of the coastal town of Calais. The town held out for many months, but when they began to run out of food a council met and decided it would be better to surrender than to have the entire population starve to death. They sent word to King Edward, who agreed to spare the city if six of Calais’s citizens brought him the keys to the castle and the town. These six were ordered to come with bare heads and feet and ropes around their necks. The first to sacrifice himself and volunteer to go was Eustache de Saint-Pierre, the town’s wealthiest resident. Five other town leaders followed. In the end, at the English queen’s urging, King Edward spared their lives. Even though they survived, Rodin chose the moment when they were walking to what they thought would be their death, since he felt it was the most emotionally charged part of the story. Because although the sacrifice they are making and their physical proximity to each other unites them, each one individually has to come to psychological terms with his fate. Rodin’s working method paralleled the Burghers’ experience—he worked out each figure separately and then put them together. The individualized faces and body language of the men is extremely moving and compelling, reflecting some of the many diverse ways people react to impending death. The provided link to the image of The Burghers of Calais as a whole also offers detailed images of each of the figures. Notes by Mariann Smith
Death and Dying
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia