The tale of the six citizens of Calais dates back to the time when the English king, Edward the Third had besieged the port of Calais during the Hundred Years War between England and France. A war that essentially saw the French wrest control of most of Northern France from the English Crown. At the time, in 1347, the city of Calais was still under the English crown. An English Crown that was of French, that is to say, Norman blood. European politics in the fourteenth century was complicated, and it hasn’t got any better since.
So, in 1347, Calais is under siege and has been for a year. Life in the city is as miserable as any before or since. If anybody says life in the Middle Ages was “nasty, brutal and short,” they were talking not about the peasants in the countryside, but of townsfolk under a military siege. It is humans that create misery, and it is not a natural phenomenon. Calais was a place of misery and Edward III was a past master at it.
Well, as ever, military actions are trumped by diplomacy and conversation. If you think that military action can stop a war, think again: it is always diplomacy. The military force is only a way to bring someone to the table and force their hand – this will be explored in an upcoming post on the bombing of Hanoi. Suffice it to say that in Calais, military force had seen Edwards position harden. You don’t lay siege for an entire year because you’re interested in politics. You do so because you despise it and Edward had won a resounding victory at Crécy the previous year.
Edward said he would lift the siege if six men came forward for execution on behalf of the city; and one man must be carrying the key to the city gates.
It was Jean d’Aire who immediately stood up and offered himself to whatever fate befell him. This fate is in the hands of Edward III, so this fate would be a cruel one. Regardless, Jean d’Aire shows the confidence of a man who is fully in control of his thoughts and his ability to undertake them.
Five others also came forward, less willingly this time, but knowing it to be the best for the city. This is an example of English forgiveness: when the English want blood, they’ll get it.
Enter Auguste Rodin.
The French Third Republic was famous for commemorating its citizen heroes and the six citizens of Calais came up for consideration. Rodin was keen to get a commission, not only for the glory of working for the Republic. This is, after all, our modern age where artists are known not just for their artistic ability, but for their celebrity status. Rodin knew this all too well, and was successful as much on account of his being known at all, as for the quality of his work. The prestige from the commission would bring him more sales.
Oh? The sculptures? Well, I’m sure he put some energy into them, too. It was his day job, after all. Rodin received the commission in 1884 and it was complete by 1889. Many of Rodin’s works would be moulded in bronze – as the six figures of the Citizens of Calais would be. But that also
means it was easy to industrialize and meant that middle-class people could have a ‘Rodin’ in their drawing room. Sculpture was no longer exclusive. It also allowed Rodin the freedom to express his own self because his works sold as much because they were a Rodin as being the kind of sculpture they wanted in their drawing room.
Rodin’s Depiction Of Jean d’Aire.
This is an unusual pose for Rodin, at least for one when he was working out of his own creativity, and that is because d’Aire is standing proudly with his head held high. I will discuss poses more natural to Rodin’s inner life in a future post in this series. It was d’Aire who took on king Edward’s challenge, and offered himself. That he did so so spontaneously can only come from a faith in ones own self; anything else, even a moment’s hesitation, implies that this is incomplete. That’s not to say that all self-possessed people would offer themselves, but how many have ever found themselves in the position that d’Aire did?
His entire carriage and composure is of an august solemnity. A man confident in himself and his powers of thought – and thereby his ability to decide things with a certainty that would cripple others. Here, if ever there was, stood a natural king amongst men, and Rodin depicted him as such.
As to the sculpture itself, there is little to remark on, save the noose around the man’s neck. There is one thing, however, and that is the man’s hands and feet. They are held naturally, which, if you know your Rodin, is not his usual style. Nor are his feet clasping the earth, he is standing, erect and wholly without fear. He is composed, he is holding himself in a manner that is both relaxed and natural – and above all, a man who is confident of his thoughts.
In his hands is the giant key to the city of Calais.
It was King Edward’s wife, Philippa of Hainault who begged their reprieve: she was about to give birth and, fearful of this as can be expected, saw the execution of these men as a bad omen. Thus the six men were pardoned, and the siege was also lifted. The child, Margaret was healthy.
The exhibition, “Rodin, Genius At Work” is at the Groninger Museum in Groningen until the end of April.