The Met’s Mourners Visit Los Angeles

The Medieval hall of the Metropolitan Museum.

John's note: This essay is an update of the one posted a year ago May when "The Mourners" were on view at the Met in NYC. I wrote then that they would be coming to Los Angeles--- and now they are here. These diminutive figures appeared at LACMA on May 6 in the "Art of the Americas" bldg. You can visit them in a near eye-level installation on four plinths, lit  by dramatic spots in a dark grey gallery, until mid July.  Don't miss them; they will never travel on pilgrimage from their Dijon home again. LACMA's intimate space far exceeds that of the Met.

These sensuous alabaster figures are intriguing contrasts to the welded steel icons of sculptor David Smith, also on view at LACMA in the new Resnick Pavilion. This landmark Smith show will be the subject of an upcoming essay.

As you walk into the great medieval hall of the Metropolitan Museum, you are transported back across centuries into the soaring space of a Gothic cathedral. The long central nave is broken only at the east end by the fifty-foot choir screen (Reja) of the Spanish Valladolid Cathedral, its central monstrance nearly scratching the vaulted ceiling. Colorful heraldic banners hang above the arches, dazzling the eyes.

The choir screen of Valladolid Cathedral.

The walls along the aisles feature allegorical tapestries and life sized wood and stone statuary of Christ and the saints.

Below the choir screen, resting on a pedestal is Claus de Werve’s nearly five-foot high painted and gilded sculpture of the Virgin and Child.

This is the normal configuration of the room. But if you look closely at the photos above you will see two rows of diminutive white alabaster figures resting on a narrow black plinth and base. These 37 figures, each barely sixteen inches tall, are “The Mourners.” Their modest stature belies the magisterial position they hold in the canon of medieval art. Look at several of them up close:

The bishop with his miter and crosier, prayer manual in his right hand, is a potent symbol of the implacable power of the Church, his stern expression as unemotive as the stone itself.

A singer, both hands cupping the dun covered Psalter, his robe’s folds falling gently below his delicate hands, cants his head, opened-mouth in song.

“The Mourners” constitute a fully three-dimensional frieze-like arcade surrounding the tombs of the first two of the four Valois dukes, Philip the Bold, and his son, John the Fearless, next to his wife, Margaret of Bavaria, early fifteenth century reigning monarchs of Burgundy. Their tombs are now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, but were originally located in the Carthusian monastery of Champmol.

Tomb of John the Fearless and Margaret of Bavaria.

Like much of France’s historic ecclesiastical and royalist sculpture, the tombs were defaced and partly destroyed during the French Revolution. “The Mourners” were eventually returned to their designated place around the stone catafalque, but now, thanks to a major restoration taking place at the museum, they are once again separated from their eternal watch as royal attendants, this time having just begun a worldwide pilgrimage to seven museums in the United States, including Los Angeles (May 8–July 31, 2011), before their return to France, first to Paris at the Cluny Museum, and then home to Dijon. It is unlikely that they will ever again be subject to such scrutiny by visitors. Considering that in situ they occupy a low frieze at about knee height, virtually encased in a canopy of arches and detailed latticework suggestive of a cathedral, seeing them here displayed at eye level and in the open, affords a vantage point that the sculptors never imagined viewers centuries later would enjoy.

Mourners in Gothic Arcade.

It is all the more amazing that Jean de la Huerta and Antoine le Moiturier, the men who sculpted John the Fearless’ Mourners, would lavish such life-like detail in the round, unlikely as it was that their meticulous work on the back side drapery would ever be seen.

The opportunity to study these figures in so many American museums is due to a sponsoring organization with the acronym FRAME, the French Regional American Museum Exchange. The Musee des Beaux-Arts in Dijon is a member of this consortium that makes it possible for the regional museums of both countries to share the wealth of their collections. FRAME has set up a website that details all 37 figures in photographs. Moving the cursor onto any figure allows you to single it out with a click, enlarge it, and rotate it 360 degrees. There is even an icon that looks like a pair of 3-D anaglyph glasses, and yes, you can actually examine any mourner in 3-D, and freeze-frame its rotation.If you have a pair of anaglyph glasses handy here is Mourner #72.

Even if your idea of a hip website would not happen to include one dedicated to medieval Burgundian tomb sculptures—this one, showing a veritable platoon of flawless, white alabaster figures against a rich, black field in 3-D is, dare I say it, way cool. Click on the link here and see for yourself:

www.themourners.org link

A few days before “The Mourners” began their journey from Dijon, a multi-nation team of archivists and photographers, including a group from the Dallas Museum of Art, the American sponsoring entity, made over 14,000 images of the sculptures in order to create this multi-perspective, high resolution online tour. Although the figures as seen in the different museum venues will not be in such splendid isolation against a black field, to experience them in any installation, in their dual ranks, has a cumulative power. Each mourning figure is defined and highlighted by its robe’s unique drapery.

And it is the drapery that contributes to the heightened emotional state of several figures. There is a certain irony that, to me at least, as the faces and hands become more and more covered by the outsized cowls and capacious sleeves, the depth of the mourning seems to increase. Here, a tonsured monk gently dabs at a teary right eye.

Mourner #55.

And here the cowl encircles a partly blocked face with the gentleness of an infant’s blanket.

Another Mourner, face barely visible, pushes out his right hand as if to thwart a possible interruption of his grief. What looks to be his Book of Hours in his left hand, seems poised like a balancing weight keeping his body upright. The gilded and painted prayer book testifies that the figures may once, like classical Athenian sculptures, have been polychromed.

Another figure is almost severe in the restraint of the robe’s folds, a simple extended line leading from a barely visible head, down to completely covered hands and feet. Most reductive of all, it has none of the contraposto and rhythmic play of most of the figures. It is an embodiment of the severe aesthetic style of cloistered Carthusian monks.

Then, there are two figures that are so swept into their grief that their faces are hidden, as if their very robes are a cascade of tears that have overwhelmed their beings, only the hands giving faint evidence of a body beneath.

Lastly, there is a Mourner that is nothing but encircling robes pulled tightly against his body, the grief so intense that it must be hidden from view, only the left shoulder defining the body’s posture.

I have not discussed the historical context of the Valois dynasty, its murderous intrigues, its eventual undoing by the future Charles VII, the almost internecine war between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs against the backdrop of the Hundred Years War, or even the role of Joan of Arc. This is all presented in the exhibition catalog which has sumptuous photographs of “The Mourners” in frontal, side and rear views— but not in 3-D.

Amazon.com—The Mourners: Tomb Sculpture from the Court of Burgundy link

Exhibition catalog.

The catalog also presents the sculptures in the context of parallel achievements in Burgundian painting and architecture, as well as a discussion of the damage to, and the restoration of, the sculptures.  This kind of more narrowly focused history and scholarship is something I enjoy. You don’t have to immerse yourself into some grand historical era or artistic movement to understand the work's beauty. It’s all here, so contained and so easy to embrace.

I decided to do this piece on “The Mourners” not because I have an addictive fascination with medieval art (I do), but because when I saw these modest sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum, seemingly so at odds with the scale of most of the  “important” art surrounding it, I was overwhelmed by the emotional power captured in this white stone. As a cinematographer, I realize how much of the time I am called upon to portray emotion with setups that are in front angle, close-up, and nothing more. What this exhibition did was to focus me yet again on a truism of cinematic drama, one that we seldom have the courage to employ—that sometimes the greatest emotional punch is packed not in the most obvious, most literal, kind of image, but in the nuanced, quiet, introspective one, one that lays back a bit, waiting for you to come to it.

In a time of increasingly strident, in-your-face image making in our movies, it is somehow purifying to just open up to another way of seeing, one that invites you to just be there with it. I can't help but speculate (if only I could ask him) how Robert Bresson, subject of the recent essay here, "Notes on the Cinematographer," would react to these muted but intensely rendered figures.

Next week: Nicephore Niepce and the world's first photograph.

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