In his introduction to Northern Gothic Sculpture 1200-1450 (London, 1988), Paul Williamson noted that the traditional bias among many art historians toward Italian sculpture has been to the detriment of the reputation of the northern European tradition, and that an artist such as Claus Sluter was as talented as, and probably more influential than, Donatello. Indeed, the Burgundian court in the late 14th and early 15th centuries was recognised across Europe as a centre of artistic excellence.
The present, beautifully executed, figure of a bishop has been attributed to Claux de Werve, the nephew of Sluter and his successor as head of the ducal sculpture workshops at Dijon after Sluter's death. De Werve is known to have worked on a number of the most important projects executed by Sluter, including the Moses Fountain, and his sculpture closely follows his master's style. However, in recent years there has been a more concerted effort to differentiate the work of de Werve from Sluter's.
Certainly there are elements of the present carved figure that strongly reflect the work of Sluter and his workshop. The long straight folds of drapery which crumple luxuriously at the figure's feet can be compared directly to several of the pleurant figures on the tomb of Philip the Bold, executed in the ducal workshops between 1384 and 1411 or the figure of David on the Moses Fountain, executed between 1396 and 1404 (see Morand, op. cit., figs. 134-135 for an example of one such pleurant, and fig. 30 for an illustration of the David). The strong psychological content of the stone bishop is also characteristic of Sluter's work. However there are also quite distinctive motifs which tie the present bishop to the work of de Werve, perhaps most obviously in the case of the angels on the Moses Fountain which are known to have been carved by de Werve himself. In particular, the angel between the figures of Moses and David displays, not only a very similar treatment of the drapery, but also the superimposed locks of s-shaped curls, each with a deeply drilled centre which one sees on the present figure.
It is possible also to link the bishop to de Werve through the probable identity of the sitter. There is no doubt that the present figure represents a portrait, executed with the utmost subtlety. With its long straight nose, thin upper lip, faint frown and square chin, the bishop closely resembles portraits of Nicolas Rolin, who became Chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy in 1419 and, particularly, of his son Jean (1408-1483, see comparative illustration). Chancellor Rolin was a wealthy and powerful man at the court of Burgundy, and was known as a great patron of the arts. As such, he would have been intimately acquainted with the ducal sculpture workshops under de Werve. His son Jean entered the clergy, and in 1431 was made bishop of Chalon-sur-Saône. He had a distinguished career and was eventually made a cardinal by Pope Nicholas V in 1449. Considering the stylistic similarities of the stone figure to known works by de Werve, its resemblance to portraits of Jean Rolin, and the knowledge the Rolin family had of de Werve's work, it is therefore possible that the present stone figure represents a portrait of Jean Rolin, commissioned either by himself or his father. If this hypothesis is correct, it would make the dating of the figure quite precise; it would have to have been executed between Rolin's creation as bishop and de Werve's death, that is, between 1431 and 1439.