The Mourners: Art to die for
For everyone alive, there is one great equalizer, one experience that doesn’t discriminate based on race, class, religion, or nationality. We all, at some point, must die.
Of course, the way each of us is remembered after we pass varies greatly. Today, many traditions insist on burial within three days of the death. But back in the olden days, the process of mourning could go on for weeks, especially for nobility. This was the case with the Duke of Burgundy, France, who died in 1404. Six weeks elapsed between his death and his burial, and his tomb took another six years to complete.
Important statuettes from that tomb are currently on display in San Francisco at the Legion of Honor. Known as “The Mourners,” this is the first time this group of delicate alabaster carvings has ever left Dijon, France as a group – and they’re not likely to travel ever again. KALW’s Steven Short spoke with the curators of the exhibit and brings us this report.
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STEVEN SHORT: When you think of the Middle Ages, perhaps images of disease, pestilence and mud come to mind. But let’s go back to the late Middle Ages, to France, just before the Renaissance.
Sophie Jugie is the director of the Musee de Beaux Arts in Dijon, France. She says that common perception of the era troubles her, because it doesn’t show the whole picture.
SOPHIE JUGIE: For a part, your vision is true. Of course, it’s difficult in troubled times, but I think that even in the darkest moment, human people always need art. You always have sublime things.
One group of such “sublime things” is the statues that were commissioned by the Dukes of Burgundy for their tombs. Now considered a French national treasure, they have traveled under Sophie Jugie’s care to the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco while the Musee de Beaux Arts is being renovated. This is the first time these statues travel out of France as a group, and it’ll likely be the last.
Their symbolic significance may be monumental, but each of these artful masterpieces could fit in the palm of your hand.
LYN ORR: They’re about 16 inches tall, and at first you think, “Oh, they’re very small,” but within just a few minutes the monumentality of them begin to take over and you don’t worry that they’re small anymore.
Lyn Orr is curator in charge of European Art for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Her first glimpse of these little statutes – 37 in all, each one individually carved – gave her the impression that they might be larger, because of the way she first caught sight of them.
ORR: When I was a young art history student, I discovered the mourning figures from the tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy in Art 1! And a slide, an image, was thrown up on the screen, and I was just entranced by the sense of poignant emotion that these small figures of mourning represent.
While it was love at first sight for the workmanship involved, Orr never dreamed she would have the opportunity to actually show them some day...
ORR: Because these are part of the most important monuments of late-Medieval art, and royal patronage. So they would not be allowed to travel, except for this one instance.
SHORT: I guess it would be like sending, I don’t know, Washington’s tomb across somewhere. You just don’t do that!
And just as people visit the Lincoln Memorial to see the Lincoln statue, visitors to the tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy go to see these symbolic alabaster figures. They represent an eternal funeral procession. The bishop is at the head, followed by choirboys and monks, and then regular mourners. Some hide their faces; others carry beads or dry their tears. Each one has its own gestures and its own facial expression.
Orr learned in that first art class of hers that the exceptional detail of the figures represents some of the most strikingly original artwork of the early 1400s.
ORR: The Dukes of Burgundy rivaled their relatives, the Kings of France, in their ostentatious patronage of art. And some of the premier objects – illuminated manuscripts, beautiful paintings, carvings – come from the patronage of the Dukes of Burgundy. They really were the richest region in France at the time.
This art patronage extended to their memorials. They commissioned the best craftspeople of the era to construct their tombs – patronage, that in its way, helped the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
Visitors to this exhibit join the select few who get to intimately experience the delicate workmanship on display – workmanship that underlines the need for creative expression, even in the darkest of days.
In San Francisco, I’m Steven Short for Crosscurrents.
The Mourners: Tomb Sculpture from the Court of Burgundy will be on view at the Legion of Honor until the end of this year. Find extensive historical context, along with 360-degree views of each sculpture, here.