Okay, so the Burghers of Calais aren’t exactly hidden. In fact, they’re smack-dab in the middle of one of the busiest parts of campus—Memorial Court, right in front of the quad. Like me, you probably pass them almost every day. But when was the last time you actually stopped to look at these life-sized sculptures (who strangely begin to look like us the closer we get to finals week…)?

The Burghers of Calais, or Les Bourgeois de Calais, if you, unlike me, can speak French, is just one of over 200 pieces by Auguste Rodin that make up Stanford’s impressive Rodin collection.

But these sculptures are not just decoration—Memorial court with its perfectly manicured lawn and beautiful vista right in front of Memorial Church doesn’t need any more beautification. Rather, they illustrate a poignant moment from French history.

So this is where the “hidden” part of this hidden treasure comes in, the part most people probably don’t know:

So this is where the “hidden” part of this hidden treasure comes in, the part most people probably don’t know:

Commissioned by the city of Calais and completed in 1889 by Rodin, the statue honors six of Calais’ wealthiest city leaders who surrendered themselves to King Edward III of England during the Hundred Years’ War. In 1346, England laid siege to the city of Calais, but France’s King Philip VI mandated that the city to hold out in hopes that he could lift the siege. However, Philip was unable to expel the English, and the city of Calais eventually ran out of resources and was forced to surrender. King Edward agreed to let the remaining citizens of Calais live if six of the city’s wealthiest leaders turned themselves in to him.

Here comes another part you might not know: each of the sculptures has a specific name. The names of the sculptures correspond to the names of the six burghers that sacrificed themselves for their city. Sir Eustache de Saint Pierre, who was the first to volunteer, was joined by Jean d’Aire, Jacque de Wiessant, Pierre de Weissant, Andrieu d’Andres, and Jean de Fiennes, all of whom are now immortalized in bronze on our campus.

…each of the sculptures has a specific name. The names of the sculptures correspond to the names of the six burghers that sacrificed themselves for their city.

When the piece was completed in 1889, it was met with some controversy. Rodin’s representation of Burghers in their downtrodden, anguished state, rather than as heroic and dignified, as was the norm for public sculpture at the time, did not please the French public. Rodin had broken the mold in representing the true emotion of the burghers rather than depicting them in the more digestible style of the heroic monument that the French were used to.

So, though I can’t go into the entire fascinating history of the Burghers, I think it suffices to say that there is an incredible story contained within those beautiful bronze effigies.

While the Burghers may be seen by more tourists than by the students who actually live here, I strongly encourage you to visit the sculptures, to walk amongst them, even for just a minute. There are several copies of these sculptures across the world, but the fact that you are able to walk amongst the Burghers, to rub elbows with them, is something very unique to Stanford’s copy (other castings are arranged closer together, usually on a pedestal).

So, while I’m sure the University had specific reasons behind its decision to place these burghers where they did, I like to think that they placed these six haggard-looking men, walking to their presumed ruin, right in the middle of campus as a sort of commiserative gesture.

If you’re feeling particularly energetic, though, I urge you to make the trek to the Cantor (which, let’s face it, isn’t really that far away) to look at the different versions of the piece, and take advantage of the amazing opportunity that we as students have—free and easy access to the largest collection of Rodin bronzes outside of Paris. The Cantor not only houses countless other Rodins, but it also is a home for several of Rodin’s studies and “draft” sculptures (called maquettes) that he created in preparation for the final Burghers we see in Memorial Court.

So, while I’m sure the University had specific reasons behind its decision to place these burghers where they did, I like to think that they placed these six haggard-looking men, walking to their presumed ruin, right in the middle of campus as a sort of commiserative gesture. As you’re speed walking to class through the quad, it’s nice to see you’re not the only one struggling.