San Francisco’s Legion of Honor is the current home of 37 exquisite tomb sculptures on loan from the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. I had the joy of visiting them recently.
The image above shows my favorite of the mourning sculptures, but it implies that the figures are large, perhaps even life-size. In reality, they stand about 16 inches high. At first I thought this diminished their power, but on closer examination, that was certainly not the case.
The figures, all men, display every nuance of grief, from throwing their heads back in pain to drying their eyes on their cloaks. Some still wear the enamel which once adorned them all, but most have lost their paint. The alabaster retains — in crisp relief — every curl of hair, every fold of fabric, every vein that crawls the back of a miniature hand. Many of the figures carry books, sometimes turning to them for solace, other times bearing them as burdens. The books, like the men, vary in many wonderful details.
The figures come from the tomb of the second Duke of Burgundy, one of the most powerful rulers of the Middle Ages. His domain stretched from Dijon in central France into Luxembourg, Belgium, and even the Netherlands. He was also a patron of the arts, drawing sculptors, writers, musicians, and other artists to his court.
Before John died in 1419, he commissioned a tomb for himself and his wife to stand in the family’s monastic charterhouse outside of Dijon. Life-sized effigies of John and Margaret rested on a slab of black marble. Below that slab stood an ornate Gothic arcade through which the mourning figures marched in procession. They were carved between 1443 and 1456 or 1457.
While echoing the relief carvings of mourning figures on classical sarcophagi, these figures were unusual because of their three-dimensionality. They mourned John through the centuries until the tomb was dismantled during the French Revolution. Eventually the tomb was moved to the former ducal palace, now the Fine Arts Museum of Dijon.
While that museum undergoes renovation, the Mourners are touring the US. After the exhibition closes in San Francisco, it travels to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and then to Paris, before returning home.
You really should see the Mourners in person, but if that’s out of the question, the exhibition guide contains photos of each figure from several angles so you the sense of moving around them. Once they return to Dijon, you will no longer be able to get so close or see them as well as you can now.
The exhibition guide is available from Amazon: The Mourners: Tomb Sculpture from the Court of Burgundy
You can find information on the exhibit and get tickets for the Legion of Honor here.