Legends are born from true stories that pass down through the ages. Some however are truer than others because someone took the pain to document the events. This can be in the form of writing, artwork or even sculptures. The Burghers of Calais is one such monument that lends credibility to a story set amidst the “Hundred Year War” between the English and the French.
This sculpture is the brain child of artist Auguste Rodin who spend a good two decades creating some of the most artistic monuments between 1880 and 1889. Welcome to LesBourgeoisDeCalais.com – a site dedicated to providing information on the monument, the artist, the event and everything in between.
For decades, the town of Calais had been thinking of making a historical monument to commemorate the Hundred Year War. When Rodin heard of this, he immediately set course to Calais in an attempt to land the commission. He too was drawn towards patriotic themes and medieval motif so it was only natural that he would feel motivated to take up this project. Then mayor of the city immediately hired Rodin in a single visit to his studio where his other works were on display. Rodin was thus entrusted with creating a monument that would commemorate six townsfolks who gave their lives to save the lives of their fellow citizens.
This monument speaks of an incident that took place during the Hundred Years War. King Edward III had besieged Calais and he ordered the entire town to be massacred but then changed his stance when a bargain was struck that six men of the principal citizens would offer their lives to him. They would come barefooted and bareheaded, in ropes wound around the necks.
The men volunteered and they came as ordered ready for their execution, but were then pardoned at the last minute by the queen. She begged King Edward III to spare the lives of the six and it is these six that are remembered with the Burghers of Calais as they leave for the king’s camp with the town gate’s keys and that to the citadel too.
Rodin started this project in earnest in 1884. While the town wanted the centrepiece to revolve around the eldest of the six, Eustache de Saint-Pierre – Rodin had other ideas. He was convinced that the monument should show various complex emotions of each six men as they laboured towards the king’s camp. About a year into the commission, the committee of the city felt that Rodin’s progress was unimpressive but then Rodin did not budge. He would rather end the project than change course to meet the conservative expectations of the committee. This standoff finally resulted in Rodin having his way and the project continued onwards.
Then in 1889, the monument was finally complete and was displayed to the public. It bought great appreciation and acclaim for Rodin. Made from bronze, the sculpture weighed over two tons and measured nearly 6.6 ft. tall. The six men however in the sculpture are not united in their heroic stance. Each is actually isolated from the other with various struggles and thoughts running through their minds on their impending fates.
Then in 1895 after much effort Rodin convinced the committee to remove the high pedestal thus bringing the monument closer to ground and the emotions in better view of onlookers. This work was finally placed in the public garden and was surrounded with cast-iron railing. It wasn’t after Rodin’s death however, that the monument was displayed near the town hall, as he had initially intended it to be.