The Mourners

As a life-long student of the Middle Ages, when the Palace of the Legion of Honor announced a showing of sculptures from the tomb of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy (1371–1419), I knew I had to go see it.  I’ve made at least 4 attempts to schedule the trip, and finally realized that I had to see it now or not at all – the exhibit closes Sunday!  These sculptures have never left France before and very possibly never will again.

My first impression as I walked into the exhibit was, how long did it take to make all these, anyway?  And what did they do with the dead Duke while they were creating the tomb sculptures?

The sculptures themselves are – amazing.  These are 15th century Frenchmen in the clothing they would have worn for a formal occasion, carved in alabaster.  You can see them at The Mourners Project web site, where you can theoretically view each statue in 360° and 3D (I couldn’t make it work in FireFox, it may need a different browser).  The carving of the clothing made me feel that if I reached out and tried to lift a corner, it would drape over my hand.  Many of the mourners have their hoods pulled over their faces; but if you bend down and look up, they all have faces, and they are all different.  Some of the mourners are monks, some of them are “pleurants,” an old French word which translates literally as “weepers.”  I say “old French” because the word doesn’t appear in a modern online French dictionary, although the verb pleurer does.

The Wikipedia article on the life of John the Fearless matches pretty closely what I read in the museum.  He died (well, he was assassinated; read the article) in 1419.  If you want a historical marker for that, according to Wikipedia, when King Henry V of England invaded France in 1413, John of Burgundy negotiated with him in hopes of taking control of France away from Charles VI.  John backed away from an alliance with Henry but did not fight for France in the Battle of Agincourt.

How long did it take to create the tomb?  John’s father Philip the Bold, first Duke of Burgundy, founded the Charterhouse (Carthusian monastery) of Champmol in 1384, as a burial place for his dynasty.  John died in 1419.  From what I recall reading at the museum, planning for John’s tomb began in 1440, and the tomb itself wasn’t completed until 1470.  So the sculptors had thirty years to complete all those figures.  Actually, they could have begun earlier.  The court of Burgundy supported a sculpture workshop which was one of the artistic centers of its age.  If you are interested in the background, the resources at are excellent and repay reading.

Ironically, the last Duke of Burgundy, Charles le Téméraire (Charles the Bold), died in 1477.  The dynasty that was to be buried for eternity in the Charterhouse of Champmol lasted only a century.  The tombs still exist, but in a museum.

The Mourners are fascinating, beautiful and moving, and I’m very glad I made the time to go and see them while they are here.  If I want to see them again, I’ll have to go to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon.

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