Recently I saw a Preview of the Picasso exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That was interesting in its own way, but I was much more impressed by another special exhibit, The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy, in one of the Met’s most serene and beautiful sites, the Medieval Sculpture Hall, where it will be on display until May 23.
The “Mourners” are 37 alabaster figures from the 15th century tomb of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, of the House of Valois. The approximately 16-inch tall statues were presumably originally intended to spend the rest of human history on procession through the alabaster arcade at the base of the tomb, beneath the effigies of the duke and the duchess. Originally located in the Charterhouse of Champmol, whose Carthusian monks prayed for the souls of Duke John and his wife, the tomb was dismantled during the French Revolution. Most of the surviving statues were subsequently incorporated in a restoration of the tomb in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon - where The Mourners will return after the current American tour.
As displayed at present in the Met, marching as it were two-by-two, the figures replicate what the Duke’s original funeral procession might have looked like. There is a bishop in miter and crozier, with members of the secular clergy, and Carthusian monks in their habits, and various lay mourners, dressed in thick mourning cloaks, all portrayed in delicate detail. Undoubtedly many of the lay mourners must have been members of the duke’s household and other courtiers. Historically, in addition to the court there would also have been poor people among the mourners – enjoying the benefit of a new outfit of mourning clothes in return for offering prayers for the deceased duke’s soul.
The Medieval Sculpture Hall (famous for being the site of the annual Neapolitan Christmas Tree-Creche) is for most of the year a place of unparalleled serene beauty and a fitting place to recall and reflect upon a long gone world which managed to live a dynamically active present while always aware of humanity’s future and final destiny. I go there sometimes just to regain much needed perspective on the things that matter most. The Mourners really help one do this.