Thursday, May 06, 2010

Returns: A Meditation in two or three parts

by Mary Kate Hurley

Back in April (where does the time go?), I and several of my manuscript group colleagues went to see the special exhibit on the Art of the Limbourg brothers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A page-by-page exhibit of the Belles Heures of Jean de Berry, the immensity of the exhibit was and still is overwhelming. Favorite parts: I always enjoy the illuminations of saints and their passions (possibly because I like being able to identify them by their method of death – ah, the morbid curiosities of being a Medievalist!), but one image of the Crucifixion struck me as particularly unique and even perhaps a bit bizarre: Folio 145v. The darkness of the illumination, signifying the darkening of the skies at Christ’s death, contrasts starkly with the previous illumination, Folio 145r.

Although the Belles Heures were the reason I attended the exhibition, what I did not expect was to meet an interest from my past at another exhibition, of the Mourners from tomb of John the Fearless, on loan from the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Dijon. I can’t recommend seeing these two exhibits enough.

A. Ghosts of the Past

In college, I had several long-standing interests, many of which were formed in a few classes taken in my sophomore year. In Dr. Overing’s “Old English Language and Literature” I met the Wanderer (not to mention that other guy, Beowulf). In Dr. Villagomez’s “Piety and Place” I began a project on Sasanian Persia that culminated in my senior history thesis. In Dr. Barefield’s “The Early Middle Ages,” I met the Valois Dukes, and I pursued them all the way to their Dijon resting place.

The mourners are part of the ducal tomb sculpture of Jean sans Peur, the second Valois Duke of Burgundy (the full list: Philippe le Hardi, Jean sans Peur, Philippe le Bon and Charles le Temeraire – so that’s Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold – or more precisely, the Rash). Created by Jean de Marville, Claus Sluter and their workshops as part of the characteristic style of sculpture in the ducal court in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, both the tomb sculpture of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless include the pleurants. Described by the Director Emeritus of the Metropolitan, Philippe de Montebello: “The mourners of the Dukes of Burgundy, no matter how admirably conceived sculpturally and sensitively carved, were not intended to provide aesthetic pleasure but rather to mourn indefinitely. Their posture and their faces in the shadows of their cowls are designed to convey the pathos of those who were to symbolize an enduring sense of loss at the death of the grand dukes. On the other hand, it is the quality of the execution and the artistry of the figures that ensure that these are successful in their role as mourners in unending wake, a wake that has not sunk into the maw of forgotten history precisely because of that quality.” (from The Mourners: Tomb Sculpture from the Court of Burgundy)

When I began to write about the tomb sculptures at the tender age of 19, I was primarily interested in the “modern devotion” of Gerard Groote and the emphasis it put on individuality. Then and now, it was the individuality of the pleurants that I found so striking. Each one is different – their individuality makes their mourning seem sincere: no.51 (the mourners for John are nos. 41-80, where Philip’s sculptures are 1-40), with face hidden in his cowl, raises a cloth-covered hand to wipe away tears ; no. 71, described succinctly as “mourner with cap, eyes lowered”; no. 60, with hands clasped in front of his chest, eyes raised, and face pained. I still remember seeing them in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon during my study-abroad time there in my junior year, thinking about each one individually, trying to understand the relationship between their individuality and the structures of theology and power of which they were remnants. It was a powerful moment for a junior in college, and re-encountering them, now as a graduate student finishing a dissertation on medieval literature – it was an odd point of contact with both the Burgundian past and my own former self. The pleurants stood in for the mourners on whom they might have been based, who once accompanied the Dukes to their resting place at Champmol – and I stood in for my younger self.

What it brought to mind most clearly, however, is the way a single intervention in the life of a student – as simple as Dr. Barefield’s suggestion that, rather than try to determine the historical veracity of Arthur (I was so ambitious back then!), I focus on Burgundian tomb sculpture because of my interest in France and studying abroad in Wake Forest’s Dijon program. Years later, I remember that conversation in his office hours, and the work it generated. What I know now, and could not have known then, is how important those moments with teachers are – the way the suggestion “Miss Hurley – go read Erwin Panofsky on Early Netherlandish Art” shaped my intellectual life for a good three years. I wrote on Claus Sluter’s sculpture, the Golden Age of Burgundy and Jan Van Eyck over the course of my history major, and it all began with that suggestion of a paper topic. And now – especially as I will not be teaching in 2010-2011 – it humbles me to think that one day, a student writing his or her dissertation might remember a conversation with me too.

The Limbourg brothers exihibit is on display until June – the pleurants, however, will be leaving New York on May 23rd. For our New York readers, and anyone with a chance to come by NYC even for a day – I cannot say how worthwhile both exhibits are, and how much you should go see them.

B. Coda, or Dissertationtopia

I fear to say “I’m back” – it always seems like a bad idea, a moment of hubris that comes under the historical heading of famous last words. But, despite my misgivings about the phrase, after six months of an MKH-free ITM – I’m back.

One of the things that no-one tells you about dissertations – or maybe I should say that I refused to believe about dissertations – is how isolating they are. Part of that comes from the hours spent in a library, to be sure – living in a carrel lit only by fluorescent bulbs doesn’t do anything for one’s intellectual social life (or one’s other social life, if there could be such a thing!). But the other part – the part I really didn’t expect – is how limited, and limiting it feels. Don’t get me wrong: I love my dissertation, and my current chapter, on Beowulf, quite a bit, and one of the joys of this past year has been learning how to really craft a sustained academic argument, and make that argument mine as organically as I can. But it seems like the focus born of being on a writing fellowship this year – that beautiful, intense, sustained focus – has an unintended side effect: it makes me nervous about talking to other scholars about anything not related directly to that work. But while that works for sustaining a project, it’s no way to sustain an academic as a human being. And so, by way of a first foray back into thinking about questions larger than the interpretation of that pesky half-line in the last part of Beowulf: I may share more than you, ITM Readers, want to know about that pesky half-line in Beowulf, but I take solace in the ability of the ITM community to draw me out of my shell, and remind me of the larger questions I’m only beginning to learn how to ask.

cross posted at ITM