Mathilde de Backer, a Decorative Arts specialist at Christie’s Paris, discusses the rare beauty and fascinating provenance of these medieval statues, which led June’s European Sculpture and Works of Art sale in Paris
On 15 June the last two marble mourners from the tomb of Jean de France (1340-1416), Duc de Berry, were offered in the European Sculpture and Works of Art sale in Paris. The figures were executed by Jean de Cambrai (known to have worked from 1375 to 1438) in Bourges in the centre of France circa 1396-1416.
The marble figures, which have been retained in the same family since 1807, are a rare artistic display of medieval statuary. Carved fully in the round, their faces are expressive and their postures contained; the vertical folds of their drapery lend them a contemporary feel. Mathilde de Backer, a Decorative Arts specialist at Christie’s Paris, says that when she first saw the mourners she was struck by their ‘monumentality’.
‘The intensity of the small details reveals the absolute talent of Jean de Cambrai,’ the specialist declares. ‘The strong sense of meditation and contemplation the statues convey made us all fall silent in front of them.’ Together with Isabelle d’Amécourt, director of Christie’s Decorative Arts department, de Backer says she has spent hours gazing upon these masterpieces, ‘always finding a new exquisite detail to enjoy’.
Jean de France was the third son of the French King Jean II le Bon (1319-1364). Considered one of the most important patrons of his era, he commissioned such seminal works as the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, illuminated by the Limbourg brothers, the Holy Thorn Reliquary and the Saint Agnes Cup, now in the British Museum.
Maintaining a French royal tradition, the Duc de Berry commissioned Jean de Cambrai to build his tomb. The grave, to be located in the Sainte-Chapelle of the Ducal Palace at Bourges, was to feature a life-size statue lying on a marble slab, and a base decorated with 40 marble mourners. De Cambrai executed the recumbent statue and five of the mourners before Jean de France’s death in 1416 — after which all construction ceased. Completion was subsequently entrusted to Etienne Bobillet and Paul Mosselmann by King Charles VII.
The tomb was completed around 1453-59. During the French Revolution it was vandalised: the mourners were either destroyed or dispersed. Only the black marble slab and the recumbent figure survived unscathed, and remain at Bourges. At present 29 mourners have been identified, and have entered the collections of some of the world’s most prestigious museums, including the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Hermitage.
At auction in Paris in June, the mourners realised €5,025,500. This was an exceptionally satisfying result for de Backer and the rest of the Decorative Arts department. ‘Having worked for several years on the mourners, it was a real accomplishment to see them make the best worldwide result for European sculpture at auction this year, and to send them off to their new prestigious home,’ De Backer says. The mourners now belong to the Louvre.