The rooms devoted to the Middle Ages are, as one can imagine, dominated by the works due to the patronage of the Dukes of Burgundy. Indeed, at the end of the Middle Ages, Burgundy played a major role in Europe and was one of the most important artistic centres of its time.
The first Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, set up his capital in Dijon where he multiplied constructions such as the ducal palace (in which the museum is housed) or the Carthusian monastery of Champmol, where the sculptor Claus Sluter was employed from 1385 onwards. Originally from the Netherlands, Claus Sluter quickly established himself as one of the best sculptors of his time. He imposed a very innovative style thanks to a powerful realism, a great expressiveness of the figures and the use of heavy drapes with deep folds. From Sluter’s work to the Carthusian monastery, all that remains today are the church portal and the Well of Moses, of which the museum has facsimiles of statues of prophets.
Philip the Bold also wanted his tomb to take place in the choir of the Carthusian monastery church of Champmol. For this reason, in 1381, he commissioned the monument to the sculptor Jean de Marville. It was he who designed the tomb with its black marble slab receiving the Duke’s bed and its alabaster base sheltering a weeping procession under a Gothic architecture.
The execution of the weeping is entrusted to Sluter. The sculptor evokes the funeral cortege that accompanied the Duke at the time of his death in 1404. He shows a great variety of expressions and translates the multiple reactions of the participants to death (some exchange words, others pray or meditate…). They are characteristic of the artist’s style by their realism as well as by the heavy draping of their clothes.
The tomb will serve as a model for the execution of the tomb of John the Fearless (the son of Philip the Bold) and Margaret of Bavaria, commissioned in 1433 from Jean de la Huerta and Antoine Le Moiturier.
Apart from the tombs, many paintings and altarpieces were made to decorate the Carthusian monastery. This is the case of the Altarpiece of Saint George, probably painted by an artist from the Netherlands around the middle of the 15th century. It represents, on the left, the deliverance of the Princess of Hungary and, on the right, the martyrdom of the saint. These two episodes surround a crucified Christ at the foot of which a Carthusian monk is kneeling. The massive side of the figures and the drapery treatment close to the sculpture show the influence of Claus Sluter. The altarpiece was exhibited with a counterpart, The Altarpiece of Saint Denis, of the same dimensions and composition, executed by Henri Bellechose and currently kept in the Louvre Museum.
Also in the Carthusian monastery was the Altarpiece of the Saints and Martyrs, sculpted by Jacques de Baerze as the Altarpiece of the Crucifixion, with its shutters painted by Melchior Broederlam and which has already been the subject of an article ( https://l-art-en-tete.com/2019/10/09/melchior-broederlam-le-premier-des-primitifs)
Generally speaking, the Carthusian monastery of Champmol is a real « museum » before its time. There were works by Simone Martini, Van Eyck or Van der Weyden, which have been dispersed over time. All that remains of his major works is The Adoration of the Shepherds painted by the Master of Flémalle around 1430, in which the painter combines two religious themes (the Nativity and the Adoration of the Shepherds) and, above all, demonstrates a totally new style based on the observation of reality. The figures are treated in a very realistic manner and, as a great novelty, they are integrated into a naturalist landscape teeming with detail and presenting one of the first uses of atmospheric perspective (which consists of creating the illusion of depth through the use of colours that fade with distance).
Apart from ducal commissions, the artists and their workshops work for a diverse clientele (religious, members of the ducal court, rich bourgeois) and disseminate new styles throughout Burgundy. This is the case for a Virgin of Pity or for the Saint Luke writing with his beautiful drapery work and the serene expression of his face.
The same is true for paint, which develops a high quality production. The double portrait of Hugues de Rabutin and his wife, painted around 1470 by an anonymous person known as the Master of Saint-Jean-de-Luze, bears witness to this. The concern for truth in the representation of faces and hands shows a Flemish influence mixed with a taste for sobriety and the simplification of forms that are more reminiscent of southern painting.
This collection of works of Burgundian production is, without doubt, one of the highlights of the museum. However, the collections also offer a very interesting panorama of medieval European creation. But this is another story…
( to be continued …)