October 7, 2010

At the Met: Medieval Mourners

Pere Oller, Mourner, 1417, Spain, alabaster, 14 x 5 1/2 x 3 inches

Whenever I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I pass through the medieval sculpture court, generally on the way to the cafeteria. I'm grateful that this gallery is always at hand because I love the emotion and simple, yet dramatic form of this period of European art. I took my camera out to photograph some of the work and found that I was drawn that day to depictions of mourning. I wasn't sad; I was moved by the deep feeling in these works, and by the way the artists used the forms of heads, hands and clothing to heighten expression. In the small Pere Oller sculpture above, the very large hands make the figure seem more human rather than caricatured, more vulnerable and full of loss. I don't know if alabaster has this particular quality, but the stone seems full of light, almost soft and yielding. The Pleurants below are also of alabaster. (The titles of the works in this post all link to the museum's page on the sculpture, with additional information.)

Mourning Virgin, France, 1415-1475, walnut with traces of paint, 42 3/4 inches overall

Mourning Virgin, detail

The rich walnut of this sculpture adds warmth to the reserved expression of the figure, the overhanging cloak adding mystery. I especially loved the hands, folded in a very real way with the fingers of one hand tensed against the lush and dramatic folds of the dress. I see the rendering of the cloth as an almost abstract composition.

Mourning Woman, South Netherlandish, ca. 1480, walnut, polychromy and gilding,
19 x 6 1/2 x 4 inches.

This piece has a very different quality, as though the woman is a lithe dancer, choreographing a tale of mourning. Or she could be a singer, voicing a lament. Her high pointed hat adds to the sense of rising lyricism.

Bobillet and Mosselman, Mourners (Pleurants), ca. 1453, France, alabaster with traces of gilding, each ca. 15 x 5 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches.

I just love these two small sculptures which came from the tomb of Jean, duc de Berry; they are two of the 25 that remain of the original 40. They are so alive, so fluid and graceful. The somber faces, hidden away in the deep shadows of the cloaks, are contemplative, quiet, while the folds of the clothing flow with energy. The whole is amazingly real and human, an expression of a being confronting questions of existence.

*Last spring the Met had a show of small figures from another Burgundian tomb, which I sadly missed; you can see them here on a remarkable website that enables you to view the pieces in a 360 degree rotation, from above or below.


  1. enjoyed your thoughts here. next time I'm at the Met I want to take notice of these - thanks to you.

  2. that's great, rappel; I hope you like the sculpture when you see it at the museum. Let me know what you think.

  3. Altoon, I'm grateful for this link; it really bothered me that I missed that show!

  4. Thanks for showing us these, Altoon. I've never noticed this gallery--will go and look at these beautiful sculptures, on my next trip to the cafeteria...

  5. The Netherlandish figure is my favorite; that domestic lively quality that you see in so many of their paintings is all here. And how fitting that Jean, Duc de Berry should have such exquisite mysterious figures. As perfect in their own way as the figures in his Book of Hours.