We often remain unaware of the relative size of things when we read about a person or place, or when we look at an image of a work of art. The Courtier, for example, is something of a big man at 6 foot 3 inches [just over 1.9 meters] tall, which of course is not apparent from his AVI. Being big has its advantages, in that he can always spot an empty seat in a crowded room. It also has its disadvantages, such as when traveling by car or in cattle class on flights, as he usually ends up with nasty leg cramps after more than an hour or two as a result of being unable to completely unfold himself in his seat.
Similarly, California is a state that, like Texas, has a reputation for doing things in a big way. The sheer size of the place is big, to start with, which leads to both large opportunities and pitfalls when it comes to governance. California also celebrates big things, with respect to man-made efforts, particularly in Los Angeles – big box office, big sports teams, big boobs/lips (natural or artificial), big freeways, and so on.
Thus it is perhaps unusual that a new exhibition which opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and runs through July 31st would celebrate a collection of pieces from 15th century France that, taken individually, are rather small. LACMA’s new show, “The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy”, celebrates the glorious alabaster statuettes carved between 1443 and 1457 by Jean de la Huerta and Antoine le Moiturier for the tomb of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. Despite their monumental appearance in individual photographs, each figure is no more than 16 inches [about .4 meters] tall. Nearly forty of them are at the LACMA show, as part of a two-year tour through the United States while the museum in Dijon undergoes renovation; before this traveling exhibition they have never previously left France.
The tomb of Duke Philip the Bold, and the joint tomb of his son and successor John the Fearless with his wife, Margaret of Bavaria, were originally erected in the church of the Carthusian monastery of Champmol. Following the ravages of the French Revolution when they were attacked by leftists, the tombs were moved to the former Ducal Palace that now serves as the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon. The Dukes and the rest of their family were then reburied in Dijon cathedral.
Each of the tombs is a sumptuous, gloriously polychromed and gilded affair, highlighted by a carved procession of mourners moving through a Gothic-style miniature cloister that rings the base of each sarcophagus. All of the white alabaster figures of mourners were carved individually and set in place, with no two being alike. Even though quite a number of the figures are wearing cowls that completely cover their faces, there is no suggestion of their being mere carbon copies of one another. In fact it is this repetition with variation that provides an even greater visual, graphic impact than if each had been given a visible face, reminding us in stone of the 15th century grisaille work of late Gothic painters like the contemporary Rogier van der Weyden
These were objects over which The Courtier would often linger as a child, when leafing through his father’s copy of Germain Bazin’s great “History of World Sculpture”. The complexity of the combination of sculpture, painting, and architecture employed in the creation of these monuments proved to be an endless source of fascination and inspiration. They made appearances in The Courtier’s own drawings, such as in an illustrated comic book version of Gounod’s opera “Faust” he produced for his music teacher around age 13, and they informed some of his thinking about issues such as ecclesiastical architecture and the Church’s attitude toward death.
While still rather grand objects compared to the funeral monuments most of us can expect for ourselves, the tombs of these wealthy and powerful rulers are nowhere near the pagan-sized efforts produced in places like Ancient Egypt or China. Despite or perhaps because of this, they have always struck The Courtier as being in better taste. Whereas the number of small mourners perpetually circling the tomb of John and Margaret of Burgundy is impressive, it pales in sheer size to that of the terracotta army assembled for the first Chinese Emperor.
Yet bigger is not always better. True, all of the Chinese warriors have individual faces, and that was a remarkable achievement for people of the 2nd century B.C. However, the figures were mass-produced and, like much of what comes out of China even today, they ultimately seem somewhat cheap and disposable. For all its remarkable size the sheer megalomania of the Emperor’s burial leaves The Courtier rather unimpressed, as compared to the combination of both decorum and emotion in stone that sum up the work of the sculptors on the Duke of Burgundy’s mourners.
After Los Angeles the procession will move on to San Francisco, and finally to Richmond, before returning to France in April of next year. It is a pity that he missed the show in New York, but all the more reason for this scrivener to get back over to France. Should you happen to be fortunate enough to see it during its time in this country, gentle reader, then The Courtier and no doubt many of his readers would love to read your thoughts on these beautiful objects.