No eye contact exists between these six emaciated figures, shoulders hunched, draped in sackcloth. They stand together, united by their fate, yet alone in their individual agony, each one facing in a different direction. Having volunteered to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of their city, Calais, Auguste Rodin has captured the men here at the point when they give themselves up. They carry the keys to the city, as instructed by their victors, and have nooses around their necks.
The sculpture provides a particularly poignant counterpoint to Psalm 133. Rather than a joyful throng singing psalms as they make pilgrimage to the dwelling-place of the Lord, the members of this group stand together to face death for the sake of their brothers and sisters in the city, which they serve. Both groups journey in hope of divine blessing: one in worship, the other in death.
Rodin’s sculpture was commissioned in 1885 by the council of Calais to commemorate the city’s heroes from the Hundred Years War between England and France. According to the fourteenth-century historian Jean Froissart, King Edward III of England struck a bargain with the people of Calais after besieging them for eleven months: six members of the city council would surrender their lives in exchange for the city’s freedom (Benedek 2000: 11). Rather than a sculpture of their leader, Eustache de Saint-Pierre, Rodin crafted a group composition to express the solidarity of their shared sacrifice.
The first verse of Psalm 133 is often translated ‘How good and pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity’. In the original Hebrew, the word ‘even’ (gam) emphasizes that it is not just living together that brings divine blessings but doing it ‘even as a unity’.
In Rodin’s sculpture, no single figure is elevated or given more prominence than another. Without a pedestal, those passing by would have been challenged to contemplate the reality of self-sacrifice as an act of solidarity with one’s community. The six men were willing to stand together ‘even as a unity’ on behalf of their civic family in the hope of God’s blessings on them all.
Benedek, Nelly Silagy. 2000. Auguste Rodin: The Burghers of Calais: A Resource for Teachers (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
133Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
2It is like the precious oil upon the head,
running down upon the beard,
upon the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
3It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
life for evermore.