This post first appeared in November 2010
Up-close with one of the great works of art in London. David examines Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais…
“Their last supper was excrement.
They were eating merde because that’s all there was to eat.
After they finished off the last rat and the last mouse.
They being the “Burghers of Calais”.
We see them here. Well, two of them. As depicted In the Victoria Tower Gardens’ cast of Rodin’s famous sculpture.
Context and connections. Which is by way of saying, to properly “read” the sculpture – an effort that pays huge dividends – you have to know a bit of the history.
Certainly more than the inscription tells us.
Which is this. The English besieged Calais in 1346-47. Six prominent citizens – burghers – handed themselves over to the besieging English, saying “kill us, but spare our city”. It goes on to say that their lives were in fact spared thanks to the intercession of Edward’s queen, Philippa of Hainault.
Which doesn’t begin to do justice to the episode.
Some context. Let’s start by reminding ourselves that eating excrement and narrowly escaping death at the hand of Edward’s headsman was as nothing compared to what was just ahead for them.
And for everybody else in their world.
The Siege of Calais – one of the first episodes in the Hundred Years War – ended in August of 1347. The very moment when all of Europe stood on the brink of the most lethal catastrophe in history.
A catastrophe that in the words of one contemporary was “the end of the world”.
Yes, the onset of the Black Death was just two months away…”
(Part Two soon.)
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