THE MOURNERS: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy

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Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

The 2011 winner of the Association of Art Museum Curators award for excellence in the category of outstanding small exhibitions, The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy, is now on view until December 31st in Galleries 1 and 2 at the Legion of Honor. The exhibition features 37 devotional figures that re-create the mourners in a royal funeral procession. On loan from the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, these small marvels have never before been seen in their entirety outside of France prior to the current seven-city exhibition tour. The figures were commissioned for the elaborate tomb of the second Duke of Burgundy, and carved by Jean de la Huerta and Antoine le Moiturier between 1443 and 1456/57. Hauntingly spare, yet crafted with astonishing detail, the alabaster sculptures exemplify the most important artistic innovations of the late Middle Ages.

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“This FRAME project allows the sculptures to be viewed and appreciated as discrete works of art. The loan and tour of The Mourners is a shining moment in the history of FRAME, a testament to shared friendship and shared knowledge,” explains Richard R. Brettell, founding director of the French Regional & American Museum Exchange (FRAME) in the United States.
Click here for ticket information: The Legion of Honor

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Mourner No. 48, 1443 – 56/57. Alabaster, 16 1/4 x 6 1/8 x 5 1/8 inches
Philip the Bold – January 15, 1342—April 27, 1404. After Jean Malouel

The sculptures, each approximately sixteen inches high, depict sorrowful figures expressing their grief or devotion to John the Fearless (1371–1419), the second Duke of Burgundy, who was both a powerful political figure and patron of the arts. The tomb, which is not traveling with the exhibition, comprises life-sized effigies of the duke and his wife, Margaret of Bavaria, resting upon a slab of black marble. The procession of mourners weaves through an ornate Gothic arcade beneath. Each individual figure has a different expression—some wring their hands or dry their tears, hide their faces in the folds of their robes or appear lost in reverent contemplation. The motif echoes that of ancient sarcophagi, but these innovative tombs were the first to represent mourners as thoroughly dimensional, rather than in semi-relief. The presentation of the mourners passing through the arcades of a cloister was also a great innovation for the tombs of the era.

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Mourner No. 46, 1443 – 56/57. Alabaster, 15 3/4 x 6 11/16 x 3 15/16 inches
Unidentified Flemish artist, Portrait of John the Fearless, ca. 1430.
Oil on panel. 11 ½ x 8 ½ in. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon

Curator Dr. Lynn Federle Orr, who is responsible for the San Francisco presentation, remembers her early discovery of The Mourners: “I remember so clearly sitting in a dark hall for an Art I slide lecture and being startled by an image of the simple, but powerful, beauty of the Dijon Mourners. In one of those transformative moments, I was entranced by these small figures. They spoke so eloquently across the centuries about what it means to be human. And they have lost nothing of their emotional power. It is such a privilege to share the Mourners with our Bay Area visitors.”

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Valois dukes of Burgundy were among the most powerful rulers in the Western world, presiding over vast territories in present-day France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands from their capital in Dijon. The significant artistic patronage of the dukes drew artists, musicians and writers to Dijon, which became a major center of creativity.

This prolific creativity and innovation extended to the ducal court’s sculpture workshop, which produced some of the most significant art of the period. The tombs of the first two Burgundian dukes, John the Fearless and his father, Philip the Bold, are among the best examples. Both tombs were originally commissioned for the family’s monastic complex outside of Dijon, the Charterhouse of Champmol. Following the French Revolution, the tombs were dismantled and moved to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, where they have remained since the early 19th century.

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Jean de la Huerta and Antoine le Moiturier, Tomb of John the Fearless and
Margaret of Bavaria, 1443–1470. Polychromed and gilded alabaster.
Upper right: Tomb of Philip the Bold
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon

The Sculptural Project for the Tomb of John the Fearless
Sculpted by the team of Jean de la Huerta (Spanish, active circa 1431–died after 1462) and Antoine le Moiturier (French, ca. 1425–1494), the tomb of John the Fearless was commissioned before his death and closely follows the format established by the tomb of John’s father, Philip the Bold.

Begun in 1443, the tomb of John the Fearless was finally installed in 1470. The tomb design is one of somber and stately elegance: on a black marble platform, known as a catafalque, rest the richly polychromed effigies of John and his wife, Margaret of Bavaria, accompanied by kneeling angels and recumbent lions. Below these majestic figures is an exquisitely detailed gothic arcade of white alabaster. Within this three-dimensional passageway, the diminutive mourning figures have ample room to “move” as they seemingly progress around the tomb. The fully freestanding figures in their ceremonial garb evoke the many participants of an actual funeral procession. Following Catholic ritual, the Dijon Mourners are designed to perform for all eternity the vigil for the dead, offering up prayers for the salvation of the deceased. After five hundred years, the Mourners have lost nothing of their emotional potency.

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Detail of the arcade and mourners beneath the tomb of Philip the Bold
Claus Sluter and Claus de Werve 1389–1410.
Polychromed and gilded alabaster.
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon

The Mourners is accompanied by a richly illustrated 129-page catalogue by Sophie Jugie, director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, with prefaces by FRAME co-presidents Marie-Christine Labourdette and Elizabeth Rohatyn and Senator-Mayor François Rebsamen of Dijon, France and an introduction by Philippe de Montebello, director emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and FRAME Trustee. The catalogue was published by Yale University Press.
Click here to purchase on-line: Museum Bookstore

In addition, a special website dedicated to The Mourners provides extensive historical context, as well as 360-degree views of each sculpture in two and three dimensions, allowing visitors to intimately examine details from every angle. The website, offered by FRAME, also features an interactive exploration re-creating the tombʼs cloister arcade and shows the mourners in their original position.

Click on the photo to explore the site:
mourner-with-crack1
Mourner No. 64, 1443 – 56/57
Jean de La Huerta and Antoine Le Moiturier (Avignon, c. 1425 – Dijon, 1494)
Mourner with an uncovered head, holding back his tears with his left hand
Alabaster, 16 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 4 3/4 inches
[Note the flaw in the alabaster at the forehead, extending out to the hand.]

Click here for ticket information: The Legion of Honor

ABOUT FRAME
FRAME (French Regional & American Museum Exchange) is a consortium of 26
museums in France and North America that promotes cultural diplomacy in the context of museum exchanges. FRAME fosters partnerships among its member museums to develop exhibitions, innovative educational and public programs and professional exchanges among museum staff, and maintains a bi-lingual website to reach global audiences.
Click here for more information: FRAME

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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