There really is no meaningful controversy surrounding the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville: Lee fought a treasonous and losing war in defense of an abhorrent institution. Every reasonable person should have wanted it removed even before it became the centerpiece at a Nazi rally. The fact that the statue has defenders is a sign of America’s deep-seated race problem, but it definitely isn’t evidence that we need to have a debate about whether to keep it.
So instead of talking about the subject of the statue, I’d like to talk about the format. This is an equestrian statue. Equestrian statues have become so commonplace since the Renaissance that it’s easy to simply think of them as the normal way rulers are portrayed. But the format has symbolic meaning: It represents conquest on the battlefield. While some equestrian statues might depict people who fought for better causes than the Confederacy, they all depict mighty leaders defeating their enemies through force of arms. Equestrian statues of rulers first appeared in the Roman Empire, and throughout history, they’ve been favored by autocrats like Napoleon and Peter the Great.
Thus, equestrian statues are fundamentally undemocratic. They undermine the basic principles America purports to stand for. In fact, one can make the argument that a country governed by “we the people” should not make monuments to its leaders at all, but should instead only portray ordinary people or allegorical ideals (It is to America’s credit that our most famous statue portrays a concept and not a person). Certainly the tendency to deify our founding fathers has led to all kinds of bad decisions.
I believe it’s possible to depict leaders in a manner consistent with democratic ideals. But it requires a fundamental revisiting of what a heroic statue looks like.
Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais is one of the finest statues ever made. It depicts an event from the Hundred Years’ War. In 1347, the city of Calais was under siege by the English. They promised to spare the city if six of its leaders would surrender themselves for execution. They had to walk out of the city barefoot and bareheaded, with nooses around their necks. They did, and impressed by their bravery, Queen Philippa had them pardoned.
When Rodin (best known as the creator of The Thinker) was commissioned to create a statue memorializing the event in 1884, the fashion was for great monuments portraying leaders as mythic ideals. But Rodin went a completely different direction. The men in his sculpture are suffering human beings in ragged clothes. Instead of a pedestal, the statue was intended to be placed at eye level, allowing the viewer to see the burghers’ faces as they contemplate their fate, rendered with Rodin’s typical expressiveness.
The Burghers of Calais depicts leadership not as a heroic act of conquest, but as a humble act of self-sacrifice. Imagine how America could be different if we viewed our leaders that way, instead of as warriors on horseback.
You can view copies of The Burghers of Calais at Stanford, the Norton Simon, and several other locations.
All images are from Wikimedia Commons.