They are so cute, these 16-inch-tall fellows in their floppy robes. Shuffling two by two, 36 strong, behind a choirboy on a black runway in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s cavernous Medieval Hall, they’re like a troop of fairy-tale dwarfs turned to stone by an evil sorcerer. Unhappy campers, they weep, sigh, gesture sadly and pray, mourning the demise of their liege, John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy (1371-1419).
They are a long way from home, and it will be a while before they can return. Lovingly carved from alabaster by Jean de la Huerta and Antoine Le Moiturier, they hail from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, France. There they usually occupy niches in an extravagantly ornamental, Gothic arcade beneath the slab on which lies an effigy of the duke and his wife, Margaret of Bavaria. As the French museum is currently undergoing restoration, it was decided that the sorrowful gang of monks, clerics and sundry laymen would be liberated from the duke’s tomb and sent on a journey around the United States. This is the first stop on the eight-city tour, and anyone who cares about the art of sculpture should pay them a visit, for each is a small masterpiece of stone carving and humanist realism.
“The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures From the Court of Burgundy” was organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon under the aegis of Frame (French Regional and American Museum Exchange). (Besides the 37 mourners centrally presented, three more that were separated from the group long ago and are now owned by different museums are also on view in a separate vitrine. One last stray has yet to be found.)
Instructed by John the Fearless to create a tomb nearly identical to that of his father, Philip the Bold, de la Huerta and Le Moiturier spent 25 years working on the project. Both tombs — cenotaphs, actually, as the mortal remains were buried elsewhere — were originally housed in the Chartreuse de Champmol, a Carthusian monastery in Dijon, the Burgundian dynasty’s official center of power.
In his famous chronicle, “The Waning of the Middle Ages,” Johan Huizinga called the diminutive band of brothers “the most profound expression of mourning known in art, a funeral march in stone.” If he was exaggerating, it was not by much.
Wearing an intricately decorated miter and wielding his spiral-topped crozier, a lavishly robed bishop up front gazes piously heavenward. Other members of the procession look downward in moods of desolation. One holds his hand to his eyes as if to hold back tears. Another wipes his eyes with a dangling sleeve. Some sport fancy hats. The finely rendered, grief-struck faces of still others are deeply shadowed under hoods, and some visages are entirely covered by them.
There is nothing stiff about these figures; their postures are realized with grace and subtlety. One leans forward and raises up his pudgy, beautifully rendered hands in a touching gesture of helpless sadness. Another sings from a hymnal. Some seem to sway, as if to funerary music. Though enveloped by their voluminous, luxuriantly draped and folded cloaks, the invisible bodies within are expressed on the surface, and give each figure vivid sense of animation.
There is also a lot to see in the details of props and clothing. One mourner carries a small sack whose supple fabric hugs the binding and metal closing buckle of a prayer book. Another fondles his rosary beads. Looking closely, you notice much variation in the textures of the robes, from waxy smooth to wrinkled and leathery. The artists’ attentiveness extends to belts, buttons, purses, decorative borders and even seams in the cloth.
While the Met’s display offers viewers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study these sculptures more closely than their customary presentation allows, it is also somewhat frustrating. Because they are gathered into a single group, because ropes prevent you from getting closer than two or three feet and because of glaring lighting from above, it is hard to see all the details. Excellent reproductions in the otherwise confusing, poorly edited exhibition catalog reveal how much you may be missing. You might wish each piece had been displayed on its own pedestal in a less distracting gallery than the Met’s busy Medieval Hall. But then the shared spirit of the group would be lost. It may be intangible, but the collective pathos exuded by the assemblage is as valuable an artifact of Medieval consciousness as any one of its marvelously expressive parts.