In 1347 the citizens of Calais experienced one of the most momentous events in that city's illustrious history; five and a half centuries later, in 1884, the citizens of Calais commissioned Auguste Rodin to produce a monument commemorating that momentous event; in 1993, through the remarkable generosity of the Pepper family, the piece of sculpture that many recognize as the centerpiece of Rodin's commemorative monument to the city of Calais now serves as the focal point of the atrium in Davidson College's Katherine and Tom Belk Visual Arts Center.
In 1347, during the Hundred Years War, Edward III of England held the city of Calais under siege for more than eleven months--and the inhabitants of that ancient French city were slowly, but ever so surely, starving to death. Since there was no possibility of rescue, the citizens of Calais were forced to accept the terms of surrender outlined by Edward -- or die. After lengthy negotiations Edward finally agreed to lift the siege if six of the town's noblest burghers willingly delivered themselves into his hands--"that he might do with them according to his will." Leaving little doubt as to what his "will" would be when they presented themselves before him carrying the keys to the city and the citadel, Edward demanded that these six citizens not only appear barefooted, bareheaded and wearing nothing but their long shirts, but that they arrive with nooses already tied around their necks.
Bells of the city were rung as a signal that all of her citizens should gather in the marketplace in front of the town hall to hear the terms of surrender imposed upon them by Edward. For the first few moments after they heard the horrible news, there was total silence in the marketplace; then one by one six of the leading burghers stepped forward to die. One of the six, whom we learn was "a very rich and much respected citizen" and who "had two lovely maidens for daughters" was named Jean d'Aire. There was much weeping on the part of the assembled crowd as the six companions in death stripped down to their shirts, bound nooses around their necks and slowly made their way out of the marketplace, with Jean d'Aire carrying the monumental keys to both the city and the citadel. When the solemn procession reached Calais's main gate the city's deepest voiced bell--the bell that was to be rung only at state funerals--began the slow, methodical dirge which continued long after the six burghers had entered Edward's camp.
In 1884 as Rodin thought about how to best commemorate this remarkable incident of heroic self sacrifice, he concluded that the time-tested, traditional approach to such sculptural undertakings simply would not do. Instead of depicting the burghers in poses of emblematic victory on a tall pedestal high above eye level, Rodin decided to anchor his figures to the actual paving stones in front of the town hall in Calais, and to depict them as they might have looked as they started their long, last journey to the enemy's camp. Rodin later summarized his thinking on this point when he wrote:
I have not shown them grouped in a triumphant apotheosis; such a 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 devotion to their cause and their fear of dying, each of them is isolated in front of his conscience. They are still questioning themselves to know if they have the strength to accomplish the supreme sacrifice--their soul pushes them onward, but their feet refuse to walk. They drag themselves along painfully, as much because of the feebleness to which famine has reduced them as because of the terrifying nature of the sacrifice. . . And certainly, if I have succeeded in showing how much the body, weakened by the most cruel sufferings, still holds on to life, how much power it still has over the spirit that is consumed with bravery, I can congratulate myself on not having remained beneath the noble theme I dealt with.
If Rodin's primary desire in his Burghers of Calais was to portray the many faceted struggle of the human soul as it faces a momentous decision, he has certainly succeeded; and if there is one figure in the group who can be said to epitomize this eternal, internal struggle it is surely the figure of Jean d'Aire; for here we clearly perceive someone whose "soul pushes him onward," but whose "feet refuse to walk."
Davidson's Jean d'Aire sculpted in 1886, represents the end product of a thought process that had preoccupied Rodin for nearly two years. Since it was standard practice for Rodin to sculpt his figures in the nude even when he knew they would eventually be draped, the Davidson figure of Jean d'Aire is actually closer to Rodin's original intent for this figure than its subsequent, particularized appearance when it appeared in the Calais group. Without the symbolic keys he was later to carry or the long shirt that he was to don as he joined his fellow martyrs Jean d'Aire remains a much more timeless, universal statement. As Rodin once said of his nude Jean d'Aire, [he does not merely represent one of the people] "who happened to be there that day, but. . .all of us." And, as one critic wrote about the nude version of the Burghers of Calais,
before [Rodin] even thought about the arrangement of the draperies [he was to give his figures], he . . .[sculpted] them [as] skeletons, nervous systems, as creatures of flesh and blood [with]. . all the organs of life. . .[These nude figures]. . .represent man's ephemeral existence and his sorrows. They bear the mark of the sadness which is the unavoidable characteristic of all great works.
Instead of responding to a specific moment in the Hundred Year's War Davidson's Jean d'Aire becomes "everyman"--a figure capable of responding to the limitless possibilities posed by the imaginations of its ever-changing parade of contemporary viewers. As we confront Jean d'Aire, we find ourselves focusing on the self-absorbed quality of the figure and gradually, almost without our awareness, we come to realize that we are confronting the unheroic, complex human being that is ourselves. Jean d'Aire "is a monument to human crisis, deeply moving in its emotional complexity, but for that very reason a private rather than a public monument."
Those who have attempted to interpret Rodin's sculpture have rightly applied such labels as "realistic," "romantic," "impressionistic," "symbolic," and "expressionistic." Jean d'Aire is all of these things -- and much more. Jean d'Aire is convincingly observed, he's filled with romantic passion, he's rendered impressionistically (the rough, slashed surface produces an ever-changing series of visual moments as one walks around the figure), he expresses profound psychological insight, and he hints at an underlying symbolic dimension that can never be adequately verbalized. As with all great works of art, Davidson College's Jean d'Aire will continue to reveal new facets of its being as long as those of us who encounter it continue to ask new questions.
by Larry L. Ligo
Professor of Art History