"They are voluntarily bound to the same sacrifice but each of them plays the role suited to his individuality given his age and position" (Auguste Rodin)
During the 14th Century and the Hundred Years War between England and France, the English were victorious in a battle that took place at Crecy, near Abbeville. Following this, in September 1346, Edward III laid siege to Calais.
The siege had already lasted around 11 months, and the people of Calais, by now suffering from starvation, decided that they could take no more. Their governor Jean de Vienne sent a message asking to speak to the English King.
"When they were come near, the Lord de Vienne said to them, "Dear gentlemen, you who are very valiant knights, know that the King of France, whose subjects we are, has sent us hither to defend this town and castle from all harm and damage: this we have done to the best of our abilities. All hopes of help have now left us, so that we are most exceedingly straitened; and if the gallant king, your lord, have not pity upon us, we must perish with hunger. I therefore entreat, that you would beg of him to have compassion on us, and to have the goodness to allow us to depart in the state we are in, and that he will be satisfied with having possession of the town and castle, with all that is within them, as he will find therein riches enough to content him." (Jean Froissart)
The English, after consulting their King, came back with a proposal:
"Upon which the King replied: “Gentlemen,......you will inform the governor of Calais, that the only grace he must expect from me is, that six of the principal citizens of Calais march out of the town, with bare heads and feet, with ropes round their necks, and the keys of the town and castle in their hands. These six persons shall be at my absolute disposal, and the remainder of the inhabitants pardoned." (Jean Froissart)
Vienne returned to the city and related the cruel request to his people. Six burghers volunteered to submit themselves to this uncertain fate - Jean d'Aire, Jacques and Pierre de Wissant, Jean de Fiennes, Andrieus d'Andres and Eustache de Saint-Pierre. The latter was one of the town's richest inhabitants, and was the first to step forward:
"After a short time......Eustace de St. Pierre, rose up and said: "Gentlemen, both high and low, it would be a very great pity to suffer so many people to die through famine, if any means could be found to prevent it; and it would be highly meritorious in the eyes of our Saviour, if such misery could be averted. I have such faith and trust in finding grace before God, if I die to save my townsmen, that I name myself as first of the six." (Jean Froissart)
The six burghers removed all their garments except for their shirts and placed ropes around their necks according to the orders given. Jean de Vienne led the brave men to the town gates and upon releasing them to the English begged that their lives be spared. The six burghers arrived before the King and fell to their knees:
"and, with uplifted hands, said, "Most gallant King, see before you six citizens of Calais, who have been capital merchants, and who bring you the keys of the castle and of the town. We surrender ourselves to your absolute will and pleasure, in order to save the remainder of the inhabitants of Calais, who have suffered much distress and misery. Condescend, therefore, out of your nobleness of mind, to have mercy and compassion upon us." (Jean Froissart)
The incredible sacrifice of these men must have been a pitiful sight, many Knights and other courtiers were said to have wept. Despite the Kings anger at the people of Calais, it was his wife Phillippe that eventually persuaded the King to pardon them, lift the siege and allow them the return to their home.
This act of heroism is famously commemorated in the work by Auguste Rodin entitled "The Burghers of Calais".
Rodin, despite advice to the contrary, decided to acknowledge all the men's bravery on an equal footing by placing them at the same level. He also had the idea of placing the memorial within the market place of Calais, allowing people to walk between the figures. This was a change from the accepted form as most memorials were a statue placed on a pedestal. Rodin’s plans were ignored however and, at the unveiling, the monument was indeed installed on a platform.
The version of the work that is now displayed in the gardens of the Musée Rodin in Paris, does have the figures at ground level however, and as per the artist’s initial intention, you are able to view the intense expressions on the faces of the burghers – each character has its own unique emotions, yet the whole expresses the sentiment of resignation to their destiny. The over-sized hands and feet (something that Michelangelo also showed in works like his "David") paired with the downcast heads or fixed grimaces with eyes glazed, staring into the distance, gives the impression of a collection of strong yet intensely vulnerable men. There is a battle between the desire to show bravery and determination and the intense sense of fear for what fate lay ahead of them and the people they believed they would be leaving behind forever.
This work by Rodin goes beyond a simple representation of what occurred in that act of bravery and selflessness; it digs further into the souls of these men and as a result encapsulates the strength, pride and sorrow of the historical occurrence.
"I have not shown them grouped in a triumphant apotheosis, such glorification of their heroism would not have corresponded to anything real. On the contrary, I have, as it were, threaded them one behind the other, because in the indecision of the last inner combat which ensues between their cause and their fear of dying, each of them is isolated in front of their conscience." (Auguste Rodin)
Quotation excerpts (unless otherwise indicated) are from Jean Froissart's account of the story in his “Chroniques”. http://www.nipissingu.ca/department/history/muhlberger/froissart/calais.htm