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Claus Sluter and Claus de Werve, Mourners, from the Tomb of Philip the Bold

Claus Sluter (with Claus de Werve), Mourners, Tomb of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, 1410 (Museum of Fine Arts, Dijon) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Dr. Zucker: We're in the museum of fine arts in Dijon and we're looking at one of the great treasures of Burgundy. These are the mourners, a series of small alabaster carvings of Carthusian monks, the clergy, and the family mourning the death of Philip the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy. Dr. Harris: The Dukes of Burgundy, specifically at this time Philip the Bold ruled Burgundy which included Flanders areas that are today France. He was very powerful, very wealthy and he had established a Carthusian monastery just outside of the city walls of Dijon as a burial place for his family. These mourning figures occupied an arkaded space below a sculptural effigy of the Duke himself in prayer and Angel's ushering him into Heaven. The idea of making his tomb there was that the monks in this monastery would be available to pray for the soul of Philip the Bold. Dr. Zucker: The most remarkable element here is the individuality of each of these figures. Dr. Harris: That's something that Claus Sluter, who was one of the sculptures, along with Claus de Werve was known for, a kind of attention to realism and expressiveness. Dr. Zucker: There's something incredibly powerful and monumental about these tiny little figures. They're only about 18 inches, 14 inches tall, and yet there's a real sense of solemnity. Dr. Harris: They're certainly not the ethereal swaying figures that we see normally in Gothic art. Here's this transitional moment away from the Gothic toward what we think of as the Renaissance. The figures have that waviness and a new monumentality to the drapery and bodies that we associate with the Renaissance. But these figures are so expressive, each one represents, in a way, a different aspect of grief. It's not just in the faces, in many cases we don't see the faces, the figures are hooded. It's in their drapery, it's in their body, that emotion. Dr. Zucker: They do embody the very notion of mourning. Dr. Harris: This is a figure where we don't see the face at all, we see hood in place of a face and this vertical folds of drapery gathered in one place where the monk underneath is obviously holding the drapery in a sense of pain. Dr. Zucker: That's right, it's turning inward and the drapery becomes as expressive as a human face, as hands even when they're not exposed to us. Dr. Harris: In someways it's almost incredibly modern, it's like Martha Graham in Dance where the movement of folds of cloth is expressive of feeling. Dr. Zucker: I love the way so many of the figures deal with the pain of mourning in an isolated way. Then there are also these very tender moments where there's a comforting that takes place. Seeing these figures isolated outside of the context of the effigy allows us to see that abstraction. Of course, this would have been just one element in a grand space that was meant to honor the dead. Dr. Harris: You're right, we're here and the figures are in glass boxes and we can walk around them, but we were certainly never meant to see them this way. (piano playing)