'The Mourners,' French medieval tomb sculptures, come to Minneapolis

A procession of 38 graceful sculpted figures that express ultimate human grief will be on exhibit at Minneapolis Institute of Arts beginning Jan. 23 in the traveling exhibit "The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy."...

Mourner No. 55
Mourner No. 55, by Jean de La Huerta (Juan de la Huerta), with head uncovered, wipes his tears on his cloak with his right hand. The 18-inch alabaster statue is part of a medieval sculpture exhibit opening Jan. 23 in Minneapolis.

A procession of 38 graceful sculpted figures that express ultimate human grief will be on exhibit at Minneapolis Institute of Arts beginning Jan. 23 in the traveling exhibit "The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy."

For six centuries, "The Mourners" adorned the tomb of John the Fearless (1371-1419), onetime Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Margaret of Bavaria (1363-1423). Originally located at Champmol, a monastery on the outskirts of Dijon, France, the tomb is now one of the star attractions of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon.

The museum in France is undergoing an extensive renovation and so is allowing the sculptures to travel to seven U.S. venues. "The Mourners" already have been seen in New York City, St. Louis and Dallas. After the exhibit closes April 17 in Minneapolis, it will visit Los Angeles, San Francisco and Richmond, Va., through April 2012.

The figures of the Mourners are small -- each is just 16 inches tall -- but they embody medieval devotion in individual ways. Some dry their tears, others wring their hands, engage in deep contemplation or hide their faces in the folds of their robes.

"With quiet spirituality and technical sophistication, they open a window on a culture poised between the mysticism of the Middle Ages and the realism of the Renaissance," said a news release from Minneapolis Institute of the Arts.


During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Dukes of Burgundy ruled over territories in present-day France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands, with their seat of power located in Dijon. Just as Florence, Italy, claimed the Medici family as major patrons of the arts, Burgundy had its Dukes. The city became a major center of artistic patronage, promoting artists such as Jan Van Eyck and Claus Sluter.

It was in this environment that the tombs of the first and second Burgundian Dukes, Philip the Bold (1384-1410) and his son, John the Fearless (1342-1404), were created. They now are considered among the masterpieces of late medieval sculpture in Europe.

These monuments feature the sculpted figures of the deceased rulers lying in state atop the tombs, while below, a procession of mourning figures appears to slip in and out of the arcades of an elaborate gothic cloister. The mourners are intended to evoke the funeral processions of the dukes, events that brought together various elements of Burgundian society: nobility, clergy and laypersons.

According to Catholic doctrine, the prayers of the living were needed to ensure the salvation of the dead. The mourning figures were thus included on the tombs to weep and pray eternally for the deceased. They convey powerful emotion as they follow the funeral procession, the news release said. Mourning, they remind us, is a collective experience, common to all people and all moments in history.

The figures on the tomb of John the Fearless were carved over a 25-year period by sculptors Jean de la Huerta (1413-62) and Antoine Le Moiturier (c. 1425-94) and their workshop.

John the Fearless, Duke and Peer of France, was the second of four dukes who reigned Burgundy from 1363 to 1477. The first duke was the youngest son of a king of France. His father gave him the duchy when he married.

The dukes built numerous residences and religious foundations and dazzled their contemporaries with displays of their wealth. Beyond the dukes' personal interest in the arts, this splendor was a way of advertising their power and establishing their prestige.

John the Fearless inherited a position of enormous influence from his father, but in seeking to maintain it, he came into conflict with Louis d'Orleans, brother to the king of France, Charles VI. The rivalry dragged Burgundy into a civil war. John the Fearless had Louis d'Orléans assassinated in 1407, and the heir to the French throne, the future Charles VII, had John assassinated in turn in 1419.


This exhibit was organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon under the auspices of the French Regional and American Museum Exchange. A fully illustrated catalog is available in the Museum Shop ($29.95).

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Rose Ensemble choral group will perform concerts Feb. 18 and 19 at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. The concert will comprise sacred choral music from medieval and Renaissance France with visual artist Ali Momeni projecting images of the sculptures against the basilica's walls.

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