Medieval alabaster mourners leave Dijon for the Met

Mourner holding back tears, alabaster, carved 1494A series of alabaster statues carved between 1443 and 1456 have never moved more than 200 feet away from the tomb they decorate in the city of Dijon, and even that tiny hop only happened once over 6 centuries.

In an unprecedented opportunity created by the renovation of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon where the tomb is housed, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City gets to be the first place to exhibit them away from their home. The beautifully detailed and realistic alabaster mourners usually process around the base of the tomb of John the Fearless, so being able to see them not just across the Atlantic but also in detail and from all angles is a unique treat.

Carved over a 25-year-period by sculptors Jean de la Huerta and Antoine le Moiturier, each statue represents a mourner — mostly ecclesiastical figures such as a bishop, a choirboy and rows of monks from the Carthusian order.

Mourner with hands on his belt, alabaster, carved 1494In their normal setting in Dijon they are only partially seen as they blend in between miniature Gothic arches lacing the base of the wealthy and powerful couple’s black marble tomb.

The open display at New York’s Met has allowed them to loosen up, emerging as individuals with sometimes surprising results.

Far from being pompous advertisements for the deceased couple’s religious devoutness and social standing, the monks and priests of the procession exude individuality, humanity and a cheeky strain of rebellion.

Each statuette is about sixteen inches high (the choirboys are the smallest), and they’re all totally different. There’s a solemn bishop, a nattily accessorized gent with his hands in belt, a choirboy holding the remains of a cross, and a whole lot more. A total of 39 statues are exhibited on a catwalk so they still have their funeral procession flair.

John the Fearless, the second duke of Burgundy, died in 1419 and these figures are meant to depict his actual funerary cortege, even though the artists only began to carve them 24 years later.

Learn about the mourners from the Court of Burdundy on their website where an intensive photography project has borne beautiful fruit with 360 degree views of each statuette.


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1 Comment »

Comment by Florence Leroy Tallent
2014-03-01 15:54:45

Many years ago I read a magazine article about the “Missing Monks of Dijon.” The article was accompanied by drawings of the statues. I do NOT remember the complete story, but at the time did do two charcoal/pastel renderings of what I saw. They remain wonderful memories of younger days, when reading about what, at the time, seemed like a fairy tale. Were you ever aware of the historic “missing monks?”

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