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Art&Seek on Think TV: 'The Mourners' at the DMA

by Jerome Weeks 30 Sep 2010 8:54 PM

We talk to Heather MacDonald, co-curator of ‘The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy,’ a mouthful of a title that doesn’t convey how intimate, personal and gorgeous this once-in-a-lifetime touring exhibition is.


See 360-degree images of The Mourners.

As part of his prodigious research for his statue of Honore de Balzac, sculptor Auguste Rodin checked out what are called the Mourners, the 40-some stone figures that surround the tomb of John the Fearless, the medieval duke of Burgundy in Dijon, France.  Rodin’s 1898 bronze of Balzac is a towering figure (left), wrapped in the monkish dressing gown that the novelist wore while he was writing. It turned the author into a monument — to the artist as genius, the artist as titanic ego and force of nature.

Why — to create such a colossus, one that helped launch modernist sculpture with its rawness and boldness — why did Rodin study these poignant, pint-sized, 15th-century funerary figures? They’re not even two feet tall.

Because, as Richard Brettell said in a recent interview, the Mourners are a landmark in carved drapery. They’re not simply displays of the increasing ability of artists to capture beautifully the folds and texture of fabric. This is stone clothing as an expressive medium. Each of the 40 alabaster statues in The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy is individually realized: There’s a pair of choirboys, other statues carry elaborately detailed missals or Bibles, a pudgy bishop wields his crozier. During the press preview at the Dallas Museum of Art, I spotted an older, bearded figure sporting a pinky ring.

Each statue is a diminutive, personal expression of sorrow or grief. Several use their robes to wipe tears, others simply bury their heads in their cowls, downcast.

Individually like this, the Mourners can seem almost cute. Look at the details. They’re dolls — with accessories.  One can’t help thinking of Gounod’s Funeral March of (the) Marionettes.

But — as we discuss with co-curator Heather MacDonald in her Think TV interview above — they are also a collective expression of distress, a crowd-sized symbol of what the duke’s assassination in 1419 meant to  Burgundy in northern France. We return to the single statues with a different sense of import, an appreciation of shared loss. (Think of Rodin’s masterwork The Burghers of Calais.) This is an entire community gathered in a single gallery (admittedly, there are no women). It is this double expression — both personal and communal — that the DMA’s exhibition beautifully conveys. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Mourners were all lined up in a procession. But here, we have a group of some two dozen in the center, while the remaining figures are dispersed in trios and solos, permitting closer, more individual inspection (right). The rich, dark- blue background color and the pinpoint lighting lend the gallery an atmosphere both royal and crypt-like. The alabaster practically glows, letting us sense the weight of the mourners’ cloaks.

Because of the cowls these figures wear and the rosary beads they finger, many viewers will assume that the entire procession — which normally wends its way through an ornamental, Gothic arcade ringing the duke’s tomb — is made up solely of monks and clergy. The tomb of the duke and his duchess, Margaret of Bavaria, was originally in the chapel of the charterhouse (or Chartreuse de la Sainte-Trinite), the name for the monastery of Carthusian monks at Champmol. But only two of the figures are actually monks (they’re easily identified — they have pointed cowls, both have books and they stand together on their own pedestal).

With the exceptions of the bishop, the monks and the choirboys, the statues represent ordinary townspeople. The elaborate cloaks they’re wearing were part of the extensive funeral rituals for John the Fearless, the second duke of Burgundy and a member of a branch of the royal Valois family. It was the family who bought the expensive material to be made into cloaks and then given to hundreds of citizens to wear. The cloaks would have been black and, as can be seen from rolled-back collars, they were fur-lined. The entire town must have seemed draped in opulent sorrow. Only the Carthusian monks would have been in white because that is the traditional color of their habits. Interestingly enough, that means only they would have actually looked something like these warm, creamy little ghosts at the DMA.

Richard Brettell — the former DMA director and currently professor of aesthetics at the University of Texas at Dallas — was instrumental in bringing The Mourners to Dallas.  For one thing, he helped create FRAME, the French Regional American Museum Exchange. Established in 1997, the exchange cuts out New York and Paris to let a dozen museums in the rest of America (and Canada) connect directly with a dozen of their counterparts in France.

The Mourners is FRAME’s most ambitious project to date, and the FRAME member in charge of the seven-city tour is the Dallas Museum of Art — meaning co-curator MacDonald. (It’s because of the magnitude of this effort — and the comparative obscurity of these statues with the American public — that this FRAME tour began at the Met in New York. It was a way of ‘introducing’ the statues to American media attention, and it worked with ‘magical’ reviews in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the New York Review of Books.)

Of course, it didn’t hurt our French-Texan link-up that for 53 years, Dijon has been Dallas’ “sister city” in France. Dijon has even sent over a small brigade of their best chefs — who will appear at the State Fair and at the DMA on Saturday, as part of the Art in October celebration. Judging from the savory pannini avec escargot and the bottle of white burgundy I tried at the press preview, I’d recommend sampling early.

The set of devotional statues was created primarily by Jean de la Huerta and Antoine le Moiturier between 1443-1456 in a workshop, strongly influenced by Claus Sluter and his nephew Claus de Werve of Holland. Sluter had been the chief sculptor for Philip the Bold, the father of John the Fearless. It was Philip who established the Carthusian charterhouse as a major arts center — and as a giant mausoleum for himself and his dynasty.

Don’t fret. The names of these artists and their achievements are relatively unknown to Americans, partly because — as MacDonald indicates in the interview — the Italian Renaissance, happening at roughly the same time, got all the press with a bold story (and a more centralized source of media influence and distribution in Rome). Yet Sluter’s works, for example, are often cited as examples of the ‘Northern Renaissance.’ They certainly have the grandeur and brilliant naturalism of the Florentine masters without the gloss of classically-inspired humanism the Italians revived. Instead, both Sluter’s works and the Mourners retain much of the spirituality and flavor of the medieval — but raised to an unprecedented level of sculptural realism. Hence, the other, blander designation for this entire period: International Gothic.

With the disbanding and selling of the charterhouse during the French Revolution (it was  “nationalized”), the art works were auctioned off. By 1791, the monastery had become a ‘holiday retreat’ run by Napoleon’s Minister of the Interior. It was only in the 19th century that many of the works — including Sluter’s masterpiece, the Well of Moses — were re-assembled, excavated or rediscovered.  A few Mourners have strayed — several remain in Cleveland — but the majority were eventually installed in the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, which, fittingly enough, had been the ducal palace.

Because the Musee is being extensively renovated — and they’re starting with the oldest section — the duke and duchess’ tomb is being cleaned and renovated. And that’s why the Mourners are able to tour for their first and probably only time.

There is something about their blend of the small, the forlorn and the fully realized that makes these men in shrouds so memorable and affecting. They charm and they haunt.

The Mourners opens Sunday at the DMA and runs through Jan. 2, with a special sneak preview and food tasting Saturday, Oct. 3.

  • Thank you for your wonderful coverage of The Mourners. Your viewers and visitors to this page might also be interested to know of the special website which was developed in conjunction with exhibition by FRAME under whose auspice the exhibition nationwide was organized. This website allows you to view, manipulate, zoom on and examine in great deal each of the statues, and even lets you see them in 3D! This website, which has achieved great acclaim in its own right, can help visitors to the exhibition discover what to look for or better remember their experience. I hope that you will take a look, and if you agree on its value, consider adding a line to your text, and a listing to your related items. In the spirit of fair disclosure, I managed The Mourners Photography Project for FRAME, with assistance from Dallas staff, and funding from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.