Mourners are Something to Cry About

An exquisite of exhibition “mourning” statues at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, have a beauty and realism that give us something to cry about, a phrase Michelangelo used to describe Flemish painting.

In the 15th century, Flanders was ruled by the Duke of Burgundy and similarities to the Flemish style of painting can be are apparent in the style of sculptors Jean de la Huerta and Antoine de la Moiturier. They learned their art from the great Claus Sluter, a Netherlandish sculptor who worked in Burgundy. The Dukes of Burgundy had one of Europe’s richest courts, in rivalry with the King of France to the west and Holy Roman Empire to the east.

The 40 statues line up as if in a funeral procession. At the exhibition, viewers have a chance to see the statues in more completeness and in a more realistic way than in the location they were originally placed, below the bodies of Duke John the Fearless (Jean sans Peur) and his wife, Marguerite. In the current display, the alabaster figures are seen as they move in space, without the elaborate decorative Gothic frames that confine them. They represent the clergy and family members who had been part of Jean the Fearless’ funeral procession in 1424. The statues are on loan from Dijon, France, while the Musee des Beaux Art is undergoing renovation.

Cowls and hoods identify these figures as mourners in the funeral procession. They are alabaster white with details such as books and belts painted. Larger effigies of the duke and duchess were painted in bright colors to look real.

Like Rogier van Weyden or the Master of Dreux Budé , these sculptors drew on both realism and emotionalism in a style that is on the cusp between the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The figures are white with a few painted color details, although mourners and even horses, in the funerary procession actually wore black, hooded robes. A tomb of Philippe Pot, Seneschal of Burgundy, from about 1480 has life-size, hooded black figures which hold up the tomb and give an even more realistic version of a funeral.
Life-sized, hooded, black pallbearers were carved anonymously c. 1480 for the tomb of Philippe Pot, Seneschal of Burgundy. They have a greater sense of actuality but less individual, emotional pathos of the group in traveling exhibition.
The small white, alabaster figures, however, are full of passionate emotion, and they move into a a variety of different positions. Their angular cuts of drapery are Gothic in style, but when seen in the round, as on display now, the statues have a 3-dimensional spatial conception of the Renaissance. Fortunately the artists carved them in the round, even though they are not seen this way in the Gothic niches underneath the life-sized, reclining duke and duchess. (In 1793, French revolutionaries damaged the effigies of the duke and duchess who represented the repression of the aristocracy, but left the mourners largely unharmed.)

The statuettes are part of the funerary sarcophagus of Jean sans Peur and Marguerite of Bavaria in the fine arts museum of Dijon. The small mourners walk in a funerary procession but are covered by gothic canopies.

These figures call to mind all the mourning figure in art history who accompany the processions and burials of important historical people, and remind us of the processions like those of Roman emperors. Certainly “mourners” were part of the history of art going back more than 5,000 years. However, I couldn’t think of any mourners from early Medieval art because the Early Christians felt death as triumphant and not a matter of earthly pain.

Although the Burgundian court was probably aware of ancient Roman sarcophagii depicting mourners in the funerary procession, the classical Greek-style Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women has a comparable format. This coffin of c. 350 BC was for a king of Sidon, Lebanon, and the women on bottom were probably part of his harem. Each mourner is carved in relief, standing separately between half-columns, while a chariots travel in a frieze above, perhaps the funerary procession or the rulers trip into afterlife. The women twist and turn and cry to show their various expressions of grief after the death of a leader. As usual, these mourners serve a god-like ruler, not ordinary citizens.

Eighteen women adorn the bottom of a sarcophagus of c. 350 BC, on
view at that archeological museum in Istanbul

Early Greek funerary art attempts to show profound emotion. Both the ancient Greeks and Egyptians had elaborate burial ceremonies for their heroes or rulers that could last weeks or months. Mourners accompany pharoahs in their tombs, as the women below.

To the right, female “professional” mourners with raised arms who accompanied the great Ramses in his funerary procession are painted in his tomb. 

Detail from a Greek vase in the Metropolitan Museum of Art has rows of mourning figures on either side of the funerary bier. Similar vases come from a cemetery in Athens and they date to 800-700 BC.

The lives of fallen Greek heroes were celebrated with elaborate games, chariot races and processions, as in the funeral sponsored by Achilles for the death of his friend Patrokles. Geometric style vases, from the 8th century BC, are decorated with scenes from funeral procession. Schematic, stick-like figures raise their arms to show they are grieving for the deceased.   The figural design is a composite type: frontal torso, profile face and a single, huge eye.
Even older than Greek and Egyptian representations are two small terra cotta statues from Cernavoda, Romania, c. 4,000 BC. Found in a burial close to the Danube River, these statues could be mourning figures. The man’s arms are raised while the woman’s arm is on her knee, her shape suggesting fertility and hope for continuity. I can’t help but think these little figurines were made by the ancestors of Mycenaean or Dorian Greeks who in a later era migrated down into Greece.

The male figure is sometimes called “The Thinker,” but these clay figures from Cernavoda, Romania may be mourners who accompany an important person in burial. The raised arms to show grief was later used by Greeks. They also remind me of Brancusi and Henry Moore.

The exhibition stays until April 15 in Richmond, the last destination in a 2-year, 7-city tour in the United States, including the New York Metropolitan Museum. Next they will go to the Cluny Museum on Paris before returning home. It will be interesting to see how they are displayed when they go home to Dijon.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Shrouded in Loss, Part II: Comparing Tomb Memorials

Before many monuments arrived on the national Mall in Washington, DC, the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery was a major tourist attraction in the capital city. Because of its fame, I decided to visit it. I compared this monument to a tomb by Lorado Taft in Chicago, because I have always been quite moved by Taft’s Solitude of the Soul at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Adams Memorial is a seated bronze figure with an androgynous face and deep, textured drapery. Augustus Saint-Gaudens completed it in 1891. Its green patina and mottled effect beautifully contrast with the speckled pink granite base and block designed by architect Sanford White. By comparison, Lorado Taft’s sculpture, erected in 1909, is starker; it takes the memorial concept further into 20th century abstraction.
Henry Adams, a 19th century historian and novelist, commissioned the Adams Memorial after his wife, Clover Hooper Adams, committed suicide in 1885. An amateur photographer of some note, Clover had suffered from depression before swallowing potassium cyanide, a chemical used in developing her photographs. Saint-Gaudens planned and executed the sculpture over 5 years. He loosely based the statue on Clover’s appearance, the iconic qualities of Buddhist statues and the grandeur of Michelangelo, particularly his Sibyls on the Sistine Ceiling, striving to capture an eternal presence in a figure that will never be alive to Adams, or us, again.
Saint-Gaudens entitled this work the The Mystery of the Hereafter and the Peace of God that Passeth Understanding, but the public called it “Grief,” a term Henry Adams never accepted. Adams, a grandson and great-grandson of US Presidents, was buried here when he died in 1918.

As I see it, the statue expressed Henry Adams’ need to come to terms with his wife’s death, an event about which he avoided speaking or writing. Yet the loss deeply affected him and whether there was guilt, regret or other unresolved feelings, he seems to have used the monument to make peace with those feelings. The intention was

to express a state of being which is neither joy nor anguish. The memorial avoids ideas about judgment and the hereafter, but evokes concepts of the divine feminine. Adams visited this grave statue often, but never met the state of peace the image portrays. (Yet the powerful female spirit appears to have influenced him long afterwards, as revealed in his books, The Education of Henry Adams and Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres.)

The bronze figure, its face and strong hands are powerfully reminiscent of Michelangelo. The drapery is very heavy, but the woman’s face is not covered. She raises an arm and hand to intercept the veil, emphasizing that face. The eyes appear closed at first glance, but are actually open, looking downward. An earthly existence is vanishing but still present, as Henry Adams tried to keep her. And she is present to us in a timeless way, since the Saint Gaudens’ statue tries to avoid the finality of loss so pervasive in the statues of Lorado Taft.
Eternal Silence is the appropriate name Lorado Taft gave the grave marker of Dexter Graves in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago. A heavily draped bronze figure pulls his robe over his mouth, snuffing out his presence in the world. Note that a hand deliberately covers the mouth, in contrast to the Adams’ figure whose hand opens the veil like a curtain to reveal a face. Here the individual portrait is completely irrelevant; he is representative of an eternal truth, the finality of a life. Eyes are closed and, like most of the face, they are blackened.
Taft prefers broad, bold simplified shapes in sculpture, as opposed to the Adams Memorial’s more nuanced drapery folds. The bronze’s patina is a light green, in contrast to the black face. A nose pops out under the hood–also green. It’s spooky. No wonder many tales about ghosts have come from those who have visited the statue. For the record, Dexter Graves died in 1844, after he had come to Chicago from Ohio with 12 other founding families of the city in the 1830s. He built a hotel in Chicago and his son Henry commissioned the monument in 1907.

The statue and sky reflect behind into black granite, the

same material used in the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. Taft simplified the outer garment, barely suggesting a large masculine physique underneath. The figure stands erect, his silencing complete.

Taft — like Michelangelo and Rodin — was committed to using the human figure to express the greatest truths as he saw it, even if his ideas were quite abstract.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Shrouded in Loss: The Black Hawk Memorial

The Black Hawk Memorial stands nearly 50 feet tall and rises on a 77 foot bluff above the Rock River in Oregon, IL. It pays homage to the Chief of the Fox and Sauk tribes who fought against the United States in the War of 1812. Lorado Taft designed the statue in 1908, long after the memory of this chief — who had controlled the region of the Mississippi and Rock Rivers until the 1830s — had vanished.

Taft sheathed him in a blanket and simplified his form to focus on the face. The main ingredient is concrete, an interesting contrast to the wild environment, and to the more radiant granite and bronze of tomb memorials. Using a hollow core and iron tie rods, Taft and his student John Prasuhn created a broad sweeping column for the body leading up to the sad, heroic face.

Black Hawk died in 1838 and Native American culture also died, a fact not lost on Taft when he chose a generalized face rather than a likeness of Black Hawk. Taft considered this statue is the Eternal Indian, symbolizing grief on a monumental scale. The artist knew deep sadness continually resonates and he did not attempt to pacify its presence.

Simultaneously, he was working on Eternal Silence, a commission for Dexter Graves’ tomb 100 miles away in Chicago. Black Hawk was Lorado Taft’s own inspiration on the site owned by Eagles’ Nest Art colony he had founded in 1898. When his funds ran short, the state of Illinois paid for the statue’s completion in 1911.

Chief Black Hawk lost his land and was forced to move to Oklahoma in 1831, a resettlement which made it

possible for Graves and 12 other founding families to move to Chicago from Ohio. The artist must have known this irony when he was creating the statues. The memory of Black Hawk looms much larger and more specific than the memory of Graves; he commands a part of the environment.

Lorado Taft possessed a grand vision–equal to Black Hawk’s, for his students and art, but his reputation as a sculptor seems to be regional. An influential writer and teacher at the Art Institute, he made a large Fountain of Time near the University of Chicago, The Blind at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and the Columbus Monument at the Union Station in Washington. An online group follows his work.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016