Grief is a collective experience, common to all people and times. Mourning customs vary from culture to culture and era to era, but the immutable, overwhelming sense of loss remains the same. This timeless link is powerfully expressed in two upcoming exhibits at the Saint Louis Art Museum, The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy, and Bill Viola: Visitation, both on view June 20 through Sept. 6.
“These works focus on death and loss from vastly different perspectives,” says Judith Mann, the museum’s curator of European art to 1800. “The Mourners were created in the Middle Ages; Visitation, the work of a contemporary American artist, is from 2008. They couldn’t be more dissimilar, but both are deeply moving.”
The Mourners brings together 40 alabaster sculptures from the tomb of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy from 1404 to 1419, explains Mann, who curated the exhibit. Carved between 1443 and 1470, each depicts mute figures in various stages of grief and consolation. Prior to the current seven-city U.S. tour, which began at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the sculptures had never been seen outside of the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, France—and will probably never travel again. “Museum director Brent Benjamin made an impassioned plea to bring this show to St. Louis,” Mann says. “When the sculptures return to their home city in 2012, they will be permanently repositioned in the tomb setting, where most of them can be seen from only one angle. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience them in the round.”
The pieces, each of which measures about 16 inches tall, are among the most important sculptures from the later Middle Ages, Mann notes. “John the Fearless and his father, Duke Philip the Bold, were some of the wealthiest aristocrats in northern Europe, and presided over an opulent court.” Artists in every medium worked for the court, but sculptors Jean de la Huerta and Antoine Le Moiturier, from the workshop of Claus Sluter, produced the most profound, original art of their time. “Some art historians say that the tombs of the Burgundian dukes rivaled or surpassed anything done in Italy during the same period,” Mann adds.
Though part of a larger monument, each figure is a masterpiece in its own right, and each mourner has a distinct personality. “They’re shown as they follow a funeral procession,” Mann says. “Some are wringing their hands or drying their tears, some are singing, some are consoling each other, and others are solemnly contemplative or sobbing into their robes. They are so beautifully conceived, supple and alive, it’s hard to believe they’re made of stone. Even when you can’t see their faces, their emotion comes across powerfully. The utter beauty of the carving is breathtaking.”
Complementing The Mourners is Visitation, a work by renowned video artist Bill Viola. The installation, filmed in grainy black and white and high-definition color, explores human experiences such as life, death, faith and sorrow. Inspired by the devotional art of the Middle Ages, it was curated by Tricia Paik, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art.
The exhibition was organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, under the auspices of FRAME (French Regional and American Museum Exchange). It was supported by a leadership gift from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, with additional support provided by the Florence Gould Foundation, the Eugene McDermott Foundation, Connie Goodyear Baron, Boucheron, and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. Major corporate support was provided by Bank of the West (BNP Paribas).
Both The Mourners and Visitation will be on view in the museum’s main exhibition galleries. “Even though they were created more than 500 years apart in completely different media, both works render universal emotions, conveying a powerful sense of pathos and loss,” Mann says. “Seeing them together enhances the experience—and you may never get the chance again.”
On the Cover: The Saint Louis Art Museum presents The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy, June 20 through Sept. 6 in the museum’s main exhibition galleries. Also on view is Visitation, by contemporary American video artist Bill Viola. For more information, call 721-0072 or visit www.slam.org.