In a Fantastic, Lost World

The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, March 1–May 23, 2010; the Saint Louis Art Museum, June 20–September 6, 2010; the Dallas Museum of Art, October 3, 2010–January 2, 2011; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, January 23–April 17,
2011; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, May 8–July 31, 2011; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, August 21, 2011–January 1, 2012; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, January 20–April 15, 2012; and the Musée National du Moyen Age, Paris, May 20–September 2012.
Catalog of the exhibition by Sophie Jugie
FRAME/Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon/Yale University Press, 128 pp., $29.95
grafton_1-051310.jpg
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon
Mourners from the tomb of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, by Jean de la Huerta and Antoine le Moiturier, 1443–1457

Down the middle of the great hall of medieval sculpture in the Metropolitan, under the banners, march thirty-six men and one boy, carved from alabaster, most of them around sixteen inches tall: tiny mourners from the tomb of John the Fearless, one of the Valois dukes of Burgundy. They will be marching at the Metropolitan until May 23, and they eminently deserve a visit. Shrouded in thick cloaks that fall in heavy folds, many of them sporting large hats or hoods that sometimes conceal their faces, the figures at first seem hard to tell apart—especially when you face them from the front and see them in their two close-set lines, mustered like the soldiers of a tiny army.

As you walk around them, as you examine and compare, you begin to see how varied they are. A bishop, his face as stony as the material he is made of, calmly carries a crosier, its curling top and his miter both tiny bravura set pieces of carving. Others clutch books, the large ones from which priests sang services, holding them open for use, saving a place with inserted fingers, or letting them dangle. There are both secular clergy (ordinary priests) and “religious” (members of orders). Peer under the hats and hoods, and you see that there are also laymen: bearded, mustached, elegant courtiers, daggers hanging at their sides, swathed in clerical-looking cloaks for this occasion only.

If the rich folds of fabric endow the figures with majesty, their hands give them life. Delicately detailed, their fingers a little stubby, their motions restrained—monks and courtiers learned to follow rigorous codes of gesture—they clasp one another, touch belts and garments, grip beads, books, and pouches, rise pleadingly in the air, and raise folds of cloth to wipe wet eyes. These quietly eloquent hands express every imaginable form of mourning. The most poignant mourner of all, who wears a neat two-pointed beard, pinches the bridge of his nose with a delicately raised left hand in order to hold back the rush of tears.

Carved by Jean de la Huerta and Antoine le Moiturier between 1443 and 1457, the mourners normally spend eternity processing through the magnificently frilly alabaster arcade that surrounds the base of the tomb of John the Fearless, beneath the recumbent effigies of the duke and duchess. Originally located in the Carthusian monastery of Champmol, west of Dijon, whose members prayed for the souls of John and his wife, the tomb was dismantled and partly destroyed in the French Revolution. Almost all of the surviving statues ended up in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, where they have been incorporated into a restoration of the tomb. The mourners will return there, after they complete their artistic pilgrimage to the Met and six other American museums, from Richmond to San Francisco, ending with a …

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