Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Mourners of Dijon

Dijon is not just mustard and good wine. We boarded the fast train to Paris on Wednesday morning and were unpacked in our hotel in Dijon by lunchtime. We lunched at the busy Place Emile Zola, spent the afternoon wandering around the old town and visited the 13th century Notre-Dame church with its miraculous wooden Madonna (one of the oldest wooden statues in France) and its layers of grotesque gargoyles.

Notre-Dame, Dijon

We took refuge from the baking sun by drinking ice cold oranginas on the classical Place de Liberation, designed by the architect of Versailles Palace, Jules Hardouin-Mansart .

Place de Liberation, Dijon

From our cafe we admired the great Ducal Palace. Unexpectedly, there isn't much left of the medieval palace, and what presents itself to the contemporary eye is a well proportioned grand structure designed by Hardouin-Mansart. Today half of the palace is given over to the offices of the municipal government while the other half constitutes the Museum of Fine Arts, second only to the Louvre in the variety and preciousness of its collections.

Claus Sluter, tomb of Philip the Bold

In the 15th century this was the administrative centre of Western Europe's most powerful rulers, the Valois Dukes of Burgundy. Theirs was a province that rivalled any kingdom, stretching from the North Sea to southern France. The Dukes spent a great deal of their time in northern climes, like the rich cities of Flanders, but Dijon remained their capital. The palace that they had built was renowned for its splendours during the 15th century and many of its former objects populate the museums of the western world today.  We had come to Dijon to relax and to view the works of Burgundy's greatest artist, Claus Sluter.

Like many of the artists and craftsmen in the Duchy's employ, Sluter came from the Netherlands, more specifically, from the Dutch town of Haarlem.  He has left us a number of works considered to be among the greatest artistic achievements of the late middle ages, including the tomb of the first Duke, Philip the Bold.  The tomb was built in the former Cistercian monastry of Champmol and is housed in the Ducal Palace today, in the Salle de Gardes, which gets three stars in the Michelin Guide to Burgundy.  I had been meaning to visit for years. But we were not in a rush. Tired from the journey and from sightseeing in the heat, we decided to reserve the next day for our day in the palace.

Imagine our slight surprise then, next morning, to discover that the Salle des Gardes is closed until 2013 for renovation and Sluter's masterpiece has been dismantled, with the tomb proper in storage and  the alabaster statues that surround the base of the tomb have spent the last couple of years touring museums in the USA.  It could have been a depressing shock.  But all was not lost.  True, the hall and the tombs of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless were out of bounds, but luckily Sluter's alabaster statues were on display in two long glass vitrines. Who knows, maybe it was possible to get an even better view of them now.

Each piece is a little under 16 inches tall. Each is unique, portraying the great sadness of each mourner as they walk in procession around the beloved Dukes sacrophagus.  Sluter had broken with the style of the International Gothic and embraced a form of naturalism that would influence artists during the following century, such as the painters Jan van Eyck and Matthias Gruenewald. Some mourners are lost in their own grief, some are being consoled by others. A monk looks upward as if to beseech the heavens.  Others cover their faces with their cowls, but even with the face hidden Sluter has managed to imbue the body with the language of loss. Somehow each alabaster figure embodies the most intense outpouring of individual emotion. They remind us, much as we try to forget it, that death is but a monent away and the sense of intense loss that accompanies death is common to all people and all historical epochs. No wonder the great historian of 15th century Burgundy, Johan Huizinga, in his masterly The Waning of the Middle Ages, described these figures as being the most profound expression of mourning in the history of art.

Sluter began the work in the late 14th century and it was completed by his nephew after his death in 1406.  It was such a success that after the death of the second Duke, John the Fearless, his successor, Philip the Good, commissioned two artists to craft replicas of Sluter's works for the tomb of John.

Slightly disappointed that we hadn't been able to see the entire tomb, we did enjoy seeing Sluter's alabaster figures and we happily spent the next few hours wandering through the rest of the Museum of Fine Arts. We walked through winding little streets, visited a handful of old churches, stopped at numerous cafes and, by the end of the day, we had even bought a variety of Dijon mustards.


  1. amazing article sir Doolan ! I just realized there were many things I didn't know about "my city".

    1. Hi Alexis
      THis is going to seem like a very very strange request and I apologise in advance. I saw the beautiful mourners when they were on tour in Paris (musee de Cluny) earlier this year. THey were captivating! They had a replica in the shop but I was travelling light and could not buy it. They will not send it sadly.

      I wanted to you know if they have replicas of the figures for sale in the museum in Dijon? If so, is there ANY WAY you would be prepared to be paid in advance and send one to me? I am so desperate to buy one as a present for a dear friend, but I have no way of getting there in time. I am a normal trustworthy person and if you can help then please let me know and I will send you my details
      Thanks . Sonia

    2. I would help out Sonia, but I live in Zurich. I don't recall seeing any replicas on sale.

  2. Interesting stuff, thanks. Why do you think Dijon's Museum of Fine Arts, got to be second only to the Louvre in the variety and preciousness of its collections? Were the Valois Dukes of Burgundy particularly important art patrons or collectors? Did Napoleon have a connection to Dijon?

    1. Hi Hels,

      Indeed they were very important patrons. Philip the Bold became at least the equal of his great uncle, Jean de Berry, as a patron. He increased the taxes on his richest cities, like Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels, in order to pay for his extravagances. Each of the four Dukes continued this tradition. After the Dukedom was subdued by Paris in the late 15th century Dijon was treated with delicacy. What suprised me the most was the number of magnificant palatial homes in the city centre from the 17th and 18th centuries. It remained a major political and administartive centre. The coming of the railroad in the 19th century gave Dijon a second life, with new phase of economic growth. Today it remains a major railway stop on the TGV. Not sure about any connection with Napoleon. He certainly did pass through this area during his 100 Days.

  3. Thank you Alexis. I forgot that you come from Dijon. Great city.