The Mourners arrive in Mpls. from the 15th century

Mourners and keepers
Erika Holmquist-Wall (left) and Sofie Jugie stand behind three of the 15th century sculptures in the Mourners show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

A group of foreign dignitaries arrives at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts this weekend. They're called "The Mourners."

They are some three dozen alabaster figures carved for the tomb of a 15th century French Duke. The statues have caused a sensation at other stops on their U.S. tour.

There are 38 Mourners, most about 15 or 16 inches tall. On a recent afternoon Sofie Jugie, director of the Musee des Beaux-Artes in Dijon, France, supervised their installation in the upper gallery of the MIA.

"They are putting in place one of the last ones," she said.

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One of the Mourners appears to be relaxing as it lies in its box before it was unpacked at the MIA. The sculptures are 600 years old, and were revolutionary when they were made because of their realism and detail.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

It's a striking sight. There are choirboys, clerics, monks and courtiers, all made from white alabaster. They are the funeral procession for John the Fearless Duke of Burgundy who died in 1470. All wear long flowing robes. Many carry Bibles.

Each of the 600-year-old figures exudes a palpable aura of sadness. Some of the most grief-stricken figures have covered their faces with their hoods. Sofie Jugie says most visitors can't help but be moved.

"The emotion is inside them. They are inside their deep sorrow."

"The emotion is inside them. They are inside their deep sorrow," she said. "Some with open face are just sad, some are crying, some are praying. It is all a little theater of emotions that are shown here."

Such is the power of that theater of emotions it's hard not to feel the Mourners are almost human. MIA Assistant Curator Erika Holmquist-Wall is helping with the installation. She drew a laugh from Jugie when describing her excitement at unpacking.

"Because I felt like 38 of my new best friends were arriving," she laughs. "That I'd read about and learned about for months on end, and here they were."

In the 15th century the Dukes of Burgundy were an immensely important political power in France and across Europe. One of the ways they displayed their power was through the commissioning of the finest sculptors to build their tombs. The realistic three dimensional carvings were revolutionary at the time. Jugie admits to a favorite.

Number 78
The figure labeled Number 78 is Sofie Jugie's favorite because of its detail and fine carving. It was one of the last to be unpacked.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"Ah yes, I have one, but he is not yet installed. Number 78," she said, pointing to a gap in the line. "Where is he?"

Figure Number 78 lies on his back, wrapped in a box, awaiting installation.

"I love all the details, the socks and the book and the folds are absolutely amazing," Jugie says. "And he has a marvelous back."

At the MIA the Mourners lined up in their funeral procession along a specially built display wall. They are not in a glass case. While there is a railing to stop visitors from touching the figures, they will be able to get within a couple of feet of each one to examine their delicate somber features.

This is not how they were designed to be seen. Originally they were displayed in an ornate, Gothic carving which supported a life-size figure of John the Fearless in the Church of Champmol in Dijon.

MIA staff unpacks the last of the statues. In the gallery visitors will be able to get really close to the sculptures and see details which are usually hidden when the pieces are in place around the tomb of John the Fearless in Dijon, France.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

It's how most people had seen them for centuries.

Then a few years ago the figures were removed for restoration work, and museum staff were amazed at the detail on the back of the pieces. They decided to send them out on tour to the United States. Sofie Jugie laughs when asked what John the Fearless might have said about that.

"They would be very surprised because they did not know America exists!" she says.

The U.S. tour began at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where art critics raved about the show. The Wall Street Journal wrote "this grouping casts a magic spell that is as sublime and compelling as anything you are likely to encounter in any museum this season."

Three figures
The Mourners are arranged in the order they appear around the tomb of John the Fearless, but in the MIA are stretched out in a line. The figures are not portraits of actual people but they are representations of the mourners at the Duke's funeral.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

The show did similarly well in St Louis and Dallas. The Mourners opens Sunday at the MIA and will remain on display through mid-April. Admission is free.

Jugie and Holmquist-Wall say there could be many reasons why the pieces resonate with art lovers in the United States.

"Maybe there is also a special interest for medieval art in the United States?" Jugie asks.

"Exactly," said Holmquist-Wall. "Because you don't have the opportunity to see this kind of work, and we won't again in our lifetimes as far as these figures."

After the U.S. tour the Mourners will return to Dijon and be re-installed in the tomb of John the Fearless, and once again will only be seen from the front.