Friday, August 19, 2011

The Mourners. Tomb sculptures of the Dukes of Burgundy

A group of nearly 40 of the greatest masterpieces of medieval sculpture have been making a pilgrimage across the United States.

Carved by Jean de La Huerta and Antoine Le Moiturier between 1443 and 1470, the unique devotional figures, known as “mourners,” were commissioned for the elaborate Gothic tomb of the second Duke of Burgundy. Crafted with astonishing detail, the alabaster sculptures exemplify some of the most important artistic innovations of the late Middle Ages. They were meant evoke the funeral processions of the dukes, events that brought together various elements of Burgundian society: nobility, clergy, and upper class lay persons. Their rotund alabaster simplicity was a moving contrast to the ornate tomb architecture. Originally placed in arches beneath the main body of the tombs, they can only now - and only for a short time - be seen in the round.

John the Fearless and mourner
During the French Revolution the tombs were moved and damaged, but by the early 19th century they had been reassembled and installed in Dijon's Musée des Beaux Arts.

Philip the Bold and mourner
As the French museum at Dijon is currently undergoing restoration, it was decided that the sorrowing group would be liberated from the duke's tomb and sent on a pilgrimage around the United States. San Francisco is the last stop on the eight-city tour, and anyone who cares about the art of sculpture should pay them a visit, for each is a small masterpiece, prefiguring the Renaissance in their eloquent simplicity.

 The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy represents the only time that these figures will be seen together outside of France and provides an unprecedented opportunity to appreciate each sculpture as an individual work of art.

For most of the 14th century, Burgundy was the wealthiest kingdom in Europe and the dukes of Burgundy the most powerful princes in the Western world. Their wealth derived from the merchant classes of Lyon, Bruges and Ghent and their capitalistic acumen, rather than the traditional medieval reliance on farming. The dukes' revenues outstripped those of the French kings (their close cousins and political rivals). 

Ruling from their capital at Dijon, the Dukes of Burgundy were enthusiastic patrons of the arts. Among their most memorable commissions were elaborate above-ground tombs, which combine recumbent effigies of the dead surrounded by a series of mourning figures, represented a cross-section of both clergy and ordinary, but upper class, people.

The tomb of Philip the Bold (reigned 1363-1404), designed by the great sculptor Claus Sluter and others in the early 15th century, provided the model for this type of monument. Sluter is best known for his Moses Well, still at the Carthusian Order's Charterhouse of Champmol in Dijon. (An order of hermits, the Carthusians were founded in the early 11th century by St. Bruno and may today be best known for the liqueur Chartreuse, produced under their supervision.)

The sculptures are small but convey powerful emotion. Their heavy draped garments envelop their bodies, yet each simple swelling form conveys a sense of the individual as well as a sophisticated knowledge of human anatomy. Originally carved for placement in niches surrounding the lower tier of the tomb, it is clear that the sculptors did not stint in detail. Back as well as front is completely carved. The faces are almost all covered with overhand cowls or folds of cloth. Yet each conveys individuality with careful touches of pose and gesture and even accessories.

The artists’ attention to detail extends to specifics of clothing, belts, buttons, purses, decorative borders and even seams in the cloth. A couple of figures hold finely carved rosary beads, and one Carthusian monk is shown actually reading from his open book. Virtually all the faces, other than those that are covered, are demonstrating their deep grief; some are totally self-involved, while others look out at you for some sign of comfort.

In his famous chronicle, “The Waning of the Middle Ages,” Johan Huizinga called the  “the most profound expression of mourning known in art, a funeral march in stone.” If he was exaggerating, it was not by much.  We know nothing of John the Fearless yet the mourners transcends their original task to glorify princely splendor and reminds us that grief at loss is timeless and universal.

The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures From the Court of Burgundy” was organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon under the aegis of Frame (French Regional and American Museum Exchange). (Besides the 37 mourners centrally presented, three more that were separated from the group long ago and are now owned by different museums are also on view in a separate vitrine. One last stray has yet to be found.)       

Website where you can see the images in the round:

Opens at the Legion on Saturday.

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