“These steps are perfectly designed,” I commented, as we rose from the bustling streets of New York into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I found the steps to be representative. People who design steps most often make them utilitarian, designed to get us from one place to another without much regard for the comfort level of the ones who will use them. The steps to the museum hardly feel like steps to me. They are shallow enough to feel like, when you traverse them, you are effortlessly rising, and all of a sudden you are swept through those heavy doors into the echoing chambers inside. It makes me grateful that forward thinking people took such care in making art accessible to the average human being.
We had one full day to ourselves in our recent trip to New York City, and we chose to spend it in the museum during the day and at a Broadway show that night. We love that museum! I am very lucky that the man I love likes similar things.
The piece is actually six individually sculpted figures arranged for this installment on a pedestal. The six figures seem to swirl in a circular motion so that you can walk around and around the arrangement and feel like you are in it.
The story goes that the French port city of Calais was under siege during the Hundred Years War. England’s Edward III basically entrapped the city for over a year, not allowing any trade to come in or go out of the city. The citizens were starving. Edward offered to spare the people of the city if any six of its top leaders would surrender themselves, presumably to be executed. He stipulated that they walk out wearing nooses around their necks, and carrying the keys to the city and castle. One of the wealthiest of the town leaders, Eustache de Saint Pierre, volunteered first, and five other prominent citizens (burghers) joined with him. Saint Pierre led this envoy of volunteers to the city gates. It was this moment, with its poignant mix of resignation and heroic self-sacrifice, that Rodin captured in his sculpture.
At one point as I was ingesting the mastery of the piece I saw through the collection of arms and legs and nooses the face of my husband on the other side gazing at the piece. It stopped me short.
My husband was the mayor of our city for four years and for eight years before that he served on the city council. I imagined him among these men willing his feet to move under him, requiring himself to not look back. Then my imagination took over and I saw my children and others who love him watching him go, believing that the steps he took would lead to a point of no return and imminent death. That, I believe, is exactly what Rodin wanted when he created this piece.
Look at these hands. They are massive. And these feet…how heavy. I stood there on that cold marble floor, the whisperings of fellow citizens reverberating in that chamber, and thanked the Lord for Auguste Rodin; for not only his able hands but for his insightful mind and sensitive heart. And I thanked the Lord for those citizens of Calais who went willingly though not without fear. And I thanked the Lord that I know and love someone who would so naturally fit in that scene if he had to, though the prospect of it breaks my heart to even ponder . I realized that my life and every life is enriched by unusual collections of people whose decisions weave together unawares. The leadership of England and France at battle over things the average citizen would not fret about; the suffering that led to crisis that led to proposals that led to the decision by six families to sacrifice someone they loved for the sake of the town; the act itself…where six men stripped themselves and wrapped their necks in rope and walked away from all they loved; the vision of the people of Calais 500 years later collecting their funds and commissioning a tribute to their forefathers; the inspiration of Rodin in choosing to depict in this way; the wisdom of the stewards at the Metropolitan Museum in acquiring the piece and preserving it so an average girl from a small town in Utah could experience it up close and personal and in the process seal her heart once again to the man she loves and admires. We swirl in our existence like those burghers of Calais, our lives touching each other like the robes of the martyrs.
I wonder if I would have the courage to sacrifice myself like that. I am not sure what I would do. I am not sure if I could support my husband doing it. Or my son, or grandson.
I suppose what matters most is that we are willing to consider it, because in considering we own the possibility, and in owning the possibility we deepen our respect, our devotion, and our understanding.