The white alabaster figures draped in cloaks show their grief in different ways: from a bent head, the face shrouded by a hood, to a hand swathed in cloth reaching up to wipe a tear.
The nearly 40 "mourners" commissioned in the 15th century to adorn the tomb of John the Fearless, the second Duke of Burgundy, will be seen together for the first time outside of France when they begin a tour of seven U.S. cities this spring.
"There's something quiet and very powerful about them," said Heather MacDonald, associate curator of European art at the Dallas Museum of Art, which is organizing the tour along with the Dijon Museum of Fine Arts under the auspices of the French Regional & American Museum Exchange.
The 16-inch-tall sculptures, completed in 1457 for the tomb of the assassinated duke, are traveling while the Dijon museum where they reside is renovated. Following their U.S. tour, the sculptures that depict clergy, family and others will be displayed at Paris' medieval Cluny Museum before returning home.
Rick Brettell, the museum exchange's U.S. director, said the Burgundy court was one of the most powerful in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. He said people travel to Dijon specifically to see the sculptures.
"The mourning figures are universally admired," he said.
For the first four venues of the U.S. tour, a John the Fearless mourner that the Cleveland Museum of Art owns will join the 39 others, MacDonald said. She said there were originally 41 mourners for his tomb, but one was lost during the French Revolution.
The Dijon museum, which is the former ducal palace, won't be without mourners during the tour. Those adorning the tomb of John's father, Philip the Bold, will be on display outside the tomb during the renovation, said Sophie Jugie, director of the Dijon museum.
The tombs of the dukes were commissioned for the family's monastic complex outside Dijon, but were moved after the French Revolution and placed in the museum. Jugie said the dukes' actual remains are in Dijon's Saint-Benigne cathedral.
The mourners for both dukes are the work of the ducal sculpture workshop, which showed innovation with the three-dimensional, natural figures, MacDonald said.
In Dijon, the mourners for John the Fearless are lined up in arcades beneath effigies of the duke and his wife resting on a black marble slab, so the tour will be a chance to see them "in the round," said MacDonald, who describes the sculptures as "astonishingly beautiful."
"I think there's something incredibly immediate about them," she said. "There's that sense that they have an eloquence that feels undimmed by time."
The mourners' first tour stop will be in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"They're evoking the real people who were in the funeral processions of the dukes of Burgundy," said Peter Barnet, who is curating the exhibit in New York.
After running from March 2 through May 23 in New York, "The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy" will appear at the St. Louis Art Museum, from June 20 to Sept. 6; the Dallas Museum of Art, from Oct. 3 to Jan. 2, 2011; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, from Jan. 23, 2011, to April 17, 2011; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, from May 8, 2011, to July 31, 2011; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, from Aug. 21, 2011, to Jan. 1, 2012; and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, from Jan. 20, 2012, to April 15, 2012.
French Regional & American Museum Exchange: http://www.framemuseums.org/
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