Mourning and Non-Ordered Religious Behaviour in the Tombs of Philip the Bold, John the Fearless and Margaret of Bavaria

Murray, Andrew (2022). Mourning and Non-Ordered Religious Behaviour in the Tombs of Philip the Bold, John the Fearless and Margaret of Bavaria. Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art / Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, 72



The tomb of Philip the Bold, the first Valois duke of Burgundy, was originally installed in the Charterhouse of Champmol near Dijon in 1411 and, as confirmed by the recent research of Susie Nash, largely designed by Claus Sluter. Now in the Musée des beaux-arts of Dijon, it contains a series mourning sculptures that encircle its lower register. Despite being amongst the most studied artworks of the late-medieval period, there remains confusion over the ritual these mourners perform. Many assume that they are in a procession because they are led by the clergy. Others argue that the mourners are not represented in a procession, but rather stand and face outward to the tomb’s viewers to encourage them to pray for Philip’s soul.

Drawing from a visual analysis of the mourners themselves as well as from conservation documents in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, I argue that both claims are correct: the mourners are represented both in procession and as saying everlasting prayers. Rather than fudge the issue, this position adequately reflects the duality of medieval attitudes towards death, which involved rites of passage that responded to the event of death itself, as well as posthumous rituals of memory that comforted the family and provided suffrage for souls. Developing on the ritual anthropology of Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, I show that the mourners combined the transitional rites of burying the deceased with an imploration to the viewer for the everlasting rituals of prayer and remembrance. This reading helps explain the difference in the comportment between the clerical and lay figures on the tomb, with the former moving in a single direction (as in a procession) and the latter seemingly not doing so (being directed to the movements and attitudes of the tomb’s beholder, who is implored to remember the duke).

This dual reading of the mourners’ ritual activity can also help us interpret their clothing and gestures, and especially their concealed faces. While this gesture has been interpreted to be a classical topos, it is one that would have been familiar to fifteenth-century viewers, ones who experienced actual funerals and looked at images of them. Rather than be a form of ancient rhetoric, the concealed face represents the mourner as both grieving and yet contemplative. The pain of grief is evident in how the mourners’ robes represent and extend the gestures of the mourners’ limbs and faces, imitating their tears and emphasizing the tension in their clenched fists. However, these robes also subdue these emotions, taking them away from being gestures of despair and making them compatible with faith in resurrection. The concealed head therefore represents a contemplative attitude, perhaps one of the state of the deceased’s soul. In sum, through these robes, the mourners assert the solidarity of the deceased’s family and household as a shared, painful moment, but also exemplify the longer process of memory and prayer.

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