Thirty-seven pilgrims from the Middle Ages landed at the Legion in San Francisco this week. Since 2010, they have have been making a journey across the United States and San Francisco is their next- to-last stop before returning to France, never to travel again.
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 and in their inner naturalness and spiritual truth, prefigure the artistic revolution of the Renaissance.
The small figures were meant evoke the funeral processions of the dukes, events that brought together various upper class elements of Burgundian society and the clergy. Their rotund alabaster simplicity is in striking contrast to the flamboyant architecture of the tombs, whose intricate ornamentation represents the epitome of medieval style (International Gothic). 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.
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. During the vicissitudes of the ensuing centuries, three of the sculptures have gone missing and are in private hands.
As the French museum at Dijon is currently undergoing restoration, it was decided that the group could be sent on a journey around the United States.
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 15th century, Burgundy was the wealthiest kingdom in Europe and the dukes of Burgundy the most powerful princes in the Western world. Their wealth was derived from the merchant classes of Lyon, Bruges and Ghent as well as their ability to marry wealthy heiresses. The dukes’ revenues outstripped those of the French kings, their close cousins and political rivals. Their prowess in war as well as their political acumen enabled Burgundy to remain independent, with a sophisticated court culture that was the envy of other kingdoms.
Ruling from their capital at Dijon, the Dukes of Burgundy were enthusiastic patrons of the arts. For instance, the first duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold was a patron of Jan van Eyck and stood sponsor at the christening of van Eyck’s child. The most notable European composer of the time, Guillaume Dufay, was a court composer.
Among their most memorable commissions were elaborate above-ground tombs, which combine recumbent effigies of the dead surrounded by a lower tier series of mourning figures, representing a cross-section of clerical and upper class members of the Burgundian court.
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 (16 inches) yet each has a powerful presence. Heavy draped garments envelop each body, yet the simple swelling forms convey a sense of the individual mourner. Originally carved for frontal 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. Individuality is conveyed with subtle touches of pose and gesture as well as accessories. One mourner wears a dagger, reminding us that the middle ages were not a time of peace. and that France was in the midst of what would be later called the 100 Years War.
In the midst of the elaborate ceremonies surrounding the death of a duke, members of the court had to be prepared for battle.
The details of each sculpture extend to carved belts, buttons, decorative borders and even tiny sandals that poke out from underneath the hems of the robes. Careful touches of paint emphasize a purse, a dagger, a bible, details of a belt buckle. The tiny crosses that hold together the coaks are delicately touched with red paint. A couple of figures hold 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 mourners “the most profound expression of mourning known in art, a funeral march in stone.” He was not exaggerating. We know nothing of John the Fearless, yet the mourners transcends their original task to glorify princely splendor and reminds us that grief 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).
A selection of works by Guillaume Dufay, one of the court musicians in the service of the Duke of Burgundy and the most renowned composer in 15th century Europe
FRAME’s website has three-dimensional images of each sculpture: http://www.themourners.org/
At the Legion of Honor, opening on Saturday, August 20th through December 31, 2001