Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Well of Moses

Having enjoyed Claus Sluter's mourners at Dijon's Museum of Fine Arts the previous day, we decided to dedicate most of our third day in Dijon to viewing the rest of his work.  While the mourners are housed within the town's primary tourist attraction, Sluter's huge work, The Well of Moses, constructed between 1396 and 1405, stands in the city's outskirts.  At our hotel the receptionist said it was quite far and pointed to a spot beyond our map. We decided to walk.

We strolled through the old town, stopping for a coffee of course, made our way though the busy shopping streets and passed beyond the main railway station, to discover the delightful botanical gardens. We lingered here a while, before making our way through the outer suburbs until we reached a side entrance which led into the grounds of the rambling Psychiatric Hospital.

It was here, in the late 14th century, that the Valois Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, founded a Cistercian monastery, the Chartreuse or Chapterhouse of Champmol. With his older brother recently crowned King of France, the Duke was determined to make the monastery not only a religious centre, but also a centre of glittering extravagance. From his prosperous Flemish cities in the north he and his descendants attracted some of the most creative artists of the North, like Claus Sluter and his nephew Claus de Werve. Little of the late medieval monastery remains, and large sections date back to the 18th century; the French revolution brought about the dissolution of the religious centre. Today it houses the huge Psychiatric Hospital.

We passed though the enormous iron gates, built in the 18th century and stopped at the memorial to those members of the hospital staff who were murdered by the Nazis during the German occupation. Some had died in the death camps.  At last we found what we were looking for.  A friendly young woman took our entrance fee, then locked the door of her office and walked us to the Well. She unlocked the door and simply requested we ensure that the door would lock when we leave. She then left us alone with one of the greatest artistic achievements of the High Middle Ages. I couldn't believe our luck.
A drawing of what the work might have looked like 

The Well of Moses marked the exact centre of Champmol. Sluter had been commissioned to construct a fountain upon which would stand a Calvary scene.  It was Sluter's genius to combine two features in one: the base of the Calvary would depict the prophets from the Old Testament while the upper structure, the crucifixion, would form the crucial climax of the New Testament.  Of the crucifixion, almost nothing remains.  What now stood before us was the massive base, depicting the prophets Zachariah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Moses, David and Daniel. Each prophet is set within a niche, stands on a console decorated with a plant motif and is identified by name.  Above them stand weeping angels (created by Sluter's assistant and nephew, Claus de Werve).

A weeping angel between Jeremiah and Zechariah

We must imagine the huge cross that would have emerged out of this base, with a mourning mother of Christ, Mary Magdalen and Saint John.  Each prophet bears a text which contains a prophecy that was fulfilled by Christ.  Thus, the prophets symbolise the Old Testament with its prophesies pointing towards a future yet to be fulfilled, the mourning angels provide the transition from the base to the upper structure as they symbolise the suffering that is about to take place, the crucifixion represents the fulfilment of the prophecies, like that of Zechariah: "So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver." (Zechariah 11;12) and Isaiah: "He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter." (Isaiah, 53:7).

King David

Originally Jeremiah wore a pair of spectacles, fashioned by the Flemish goldsmith Hennequin de Hacht. They have long since vanished (much like many of my reading glasses). For the rest, this monumental work is in an incredibly good state. We could see clear evidence of the rich polychromy. Scientific research points to the conclusion that it is the original and analysis indicates an absence of later overpainting. The painter was a Fleming, Jean de Malouel.

Moses with his tablets

As with his mourners, Sluter's genius is apparent in the naturalism of his figures.  It is as if each is drawn from real life. The extraordinary realism is achieved through a wealth of detail - the veins upon the hands, the furrows of the brows, the creasing of the robes, the angles of the shoes, the tilt of the heads.  Knowing that these giant figures would be viewed from far below, Sluter broadened out the figures towards the top. In other words, using a deep understanding of three dimensionality, he distorted the perspective in order to gain realism. Even every angel is obviously individualised. Burckhardt was wrong when he claimed that modern man, the individual, was born in Italy during the Renaissance, he was already present here, further north, in the work of Claus Sluter, a Dutchman.  The likes of this will not be equalled again until Donatello (1386-1466) begins his work in Florence.

Daniel and Isaiah

Yet these are not simply six individuals. Just like his mourners for Philip's tomb, the figures are connected through human gesture, for instance Daniel is turned slightly towards Isaiah, who leans forward towards Daniel. The gilded wings of the angels provide a halo that connects all of the prophets. Everyone is united under the burden of their terrible knowledge.

A few steps away from the Well of Moses (and yes, we ensured the door was locked behind us), down a corridor of the hospital, out a door and around a corner we came to the portal of the church that once housed the tomb of Philip the Bold and his wife Margaret of Flanders. The tomb, designed by Claus Sluter, is now in the Museum of Fine Arts and the church is long destroyed (the church that stands today is a 19th century fantasy of what a medieval chapel should have looked like), but the original portal still remains.  And thank heaven, for it is yet another work of Claus Sluter and Claus de Werve. Molded arches crown a plain tympanum adorned by just two trefoil arches. In the centre stands the Virgin Mary. To her right, Philip the Bold and John the Baptist, to her left, Margaret of Flanders and Saint Catherine.  As with all of his work, it is the movement and naturalistic conviction of the faces and drapery that bring to us a sense of realism. These were real people who lived and died in Europe seven hundred years ago and the reality of that fact is brought to us thanks to the craftsmanship and creativity of Claus Sluter.

It was time for a break.  We picnicked in the shade by a nearby lake, then took the long way back to town by means of a meandering leafy path that followed  the river Ouche. Once back in town we enjoyed lunch at a cafe overlooking Saint Benigne Cathedral. But we weren't done yet.  Although Sluter's Calvary scene, that once stood upon The Well of Moses, has long ago been destroyed, in 1842 a fragment of Christ's legs as well as his bust and face, were rediscovered.  We paid our bill at the cafe, crossed the road to the former dormitory of the abbey that was once attached to the Cathedral, and entered what is now Dijon's Museum of Archeology.  We worked our way through prehistory and the Celts, the Gauls and Romans, the Merovingians and Carolingians, until we entered the hall containing fragments from medieval Champmol.  And there, right at the back, a well preserved fragment of a crucifixion from Claus de Werve:

Steps away, the fragment of the legs and feet of Christ, still bearing traces of red paint depicting blood:

and the fragment of Christ's bust and face:

Could this really be the Christ that formed the apex of Sluter's work, that stood for centuries high above The Well of Moses, at the centre of one of medieval Christendom's most powerful monasteries?  I don't think that can be known for sure. But although crucified, Christ's face unites suffering and peace. The face is creased in pain. Blood flows from a stab in the chest. The mouth is slightly open, the eyes closed, death is approaching. Yet the anatomical realism is precise and accurate. It bears Sluter's hallmark, I think.  Like all of his works, it says: this is a man.


  1. "Sluter's genius is apparent in the naturalism of his figures. It is as if each is drawn from real life." I agree, for two separate reasons. Firstly Sluter clearly had a great eye and the talent to pull it off. Secondly this is a mourning piece. The prophets and angels were reflecting a tragedy, so they needed to individually present their pain in minute detail.

    That makes it quite difficult to look at, of course.

  2. Agreed Hels. It is a heartbeakingly sad piece.

  3. Christ's expression reminds me of that of Bernini's St. Theresa.