Statues of Limitation – Frank McNally on the scrap-metal soldier, Brexit, and the Burghers of Calais

An Irishman’s Diary


I finally got around to visiting that sculpture of the first World War soldier in St Stephen’s Green last weekend, just before they took it away. And I’d like to say I was as moved by it as many people claimed to be. But in fact my main reaction to it was a question: why did it have to be so big?

At six metres plus, it was considerably taller than another larger-than-life sculpted fighting man, Michelangelo’s David, about which I used to wonder that same thing.

David, after all, was the proverbial little guy who triumphs over the great, whereas in the Florence statue, he’s about 17 feet high.

But apart from it being a masterpiece for the ages, Michelangelo also had the excuse that he made it from a giant piece of marble that had been lying around the workshop for years, unused because of supposed flaws.

The soldier, by contrast, was assembled from random scrap-metal parts, and so could have been any size. That may have been the problem. The original commission was for something a mere four metres high, and even that would have been plenty. Then, in a sculpting version of Parkinson’s Law, the project grew to meet the availability of parts.

The results were certainly dramatic: visiting the sculpture was an event. For me, though, it was the wrong kind of event. We are told that the figure represented a haunted, war-weary soldier, “trying to find his way home”. But it was still a soldier, towering 20 feet above and making you feel small, which was hardly the intention.  

Anyway, the original has now departed, and the Taoiseach and others have floated the idea of commissioning a permanent replica. I hope that if such a thing happens, on cost-grounds alone, we’ll end up with something more human-sized. Otherwise, in a city of low-rise statues (even Daniel O’Connell is a mere 12 feet, not counting the pedestal), we would have to lift the height cap.

On a first visit to the Rodin Museum in Paris, years ago, I was also taken aback at the size of some of his sculptures, especially The Thinker, which I somehow expected to be smaller, and at ground level, not a colossal thing looking down on me.

So I was amused to see another of Rodin’s greatest hits, the Burghers of Calais, being cited by Brexiteers in London over the weekend as a metaphor for the alleged prostration of the British government at the feet of the EU.

This was quite a turn of events, historically. The original Burghers of Calais were civic leaders of that French city when, during the Hundred Years’ War, it was besieged to starvation point by the English.

The King of France ordered the residents to hold out at all costs. But according to the medieval historian Jean Froissart, England’s Edward III promised to spare the rest of the population if six city fathers surrendered themselves for retribution.

Specifically they were required to walk out with the keys, and wearing nooses. Then they would be executed. So a brave man called Eustache de Saint Pierre volunteered his own neck, and persuaded five others to accompany him to what they assumed would be their deaths. Instead of which, they were spared by the intercession of England’s queen, herself French, and became heroes.

Five centuries later, Calais decided to erect a statue to the first burgher. But when, after various delays, the project fell to Rodin, he insisted on sculpting the entire group. This, and his intention to place them at ground level, without pedestal, proved controversial. 

The commissioners wanted something more heroic, so they put them on a pedestal anyway. It was years later before the sculptor’s wishes were finally respected, with the burghers set at a level where living citizens of Calais could meet them eye to eye, and empathise.

Of 12 licensed reproductions of the group worldwide, one is in a park beside the British Houses of Parliament.  And it does have a pedestal. But even so, it was the subject of tweeted scorn over the weekend from Ukip leader Gerard Batten, who declared it a “fitting” tribute to Britain’s decades of EU membership, which he characterised as a “beaten race of wretches begging [...] for scraps”.

So much for the subtlety of Rodin’s tribute to the spirit of self-sacrifice. As for the well-named Batten, he appears to favour freedom of movement, at least for sculptures. Post-Brexit, he wants the burghers replaced by “Britannia or Boadicea or somebody like that”.  

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