The Mourners are the most famous elements of the tombs of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, and his wife Margaret of Bavaria. Constructed in the 15th century at the monastery of Champmol, they are now preserved at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Dijon. Lucky for us the museum is undergoing an extensive renovation and the 39 alabaster mourners have been removed from their cloistered tomb and are briefly on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 23, before touring a number of museums across the country.
In Dijon, reclining statues of the duke and his wife lie atop the tombs, encircled by angles, as the statues – each approximately 16 inches tall – unfold like an eternal funeral procession underneath the finely carved base. What’s so fantastic about The Mourners here is that they have been stripped of their regal surroundings. There is no tomb, no portico, no immediate context: just two lines of mourners dramatically lit in front of the great choir screen in the Medieval Sculpture Hall. You could touch them if you wanted to – though I would not recommend trying that – there is so little distance between the figures and the public. You can get up into their faces and see that they are characterized, but not individual portraits – each figure shows sadness, whether through an expression, a gesture to a neighbor, or the folds of their magnificent drapery. What this exhibition makes so exquisitely clear is that the emotion these medieval figures carry is common to all men and to all times, and it still touches us today: following the funeral procession, crying, praying, singing, gathering together, letting ourselves be overrun by sadness, consoling our neighbors – grief is a collective experience.