At the end of the late Middle Ages it wasn’t unusual to see a procession of mourners heading towards the funerals of the great and the good, even lingering about their tombs to offer up prayers to ease the souls of the dead. What is unusual about the mourners at the tombs of Philip the Bold and his son John The Fearless, both Dukes of Burgundy between 1363 and 1419, is that the mourners are still there.
In 1381, with the foresight and eye for posterity common to all medieval nobility, Philip the Bold (Phillipe le Hardi en Francais) assigned his master-sculptor, Jean Marville, to “make [him] an alabaster sepulchre”. Work began on the tomb in 1384, at the Chartreuse de Champmol just outside Dijon in France, and it would still be ongoing at the time of Philip’s death, in 1404. Yet what a tomb it would be.
“The iconography of a recumbent effigy with a procession of mourners is not new […]. The innovation here is at the base, the space accorded to the mourner, who are not isolated and in semi-relief in their arcades, but instead seem to slip in and out of the cloister arcades. Each one expresses grief through facial expression, a gesture toward a neighbour, or the eloquence of the draperies.”
These mourners (les pleurants en Francais), forty for the tomb of Philip and a further forty for the eventual tomb of John, are exquisite in their melancholy. The figures range in rank from the commanding pomp of the procession-leading bishop to the simple robes of Carthusian monks, a notably austere order, but their alabaster forms, a mere 16” tall at most, almost glow with universal piety; as Sophie Jugie, Director of the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, says, they are “at once grief-stricken and serene”. They are almost alive in their intensity of emotion, yet they can never be. It is this liminal nature, this lingering on the edge of life and death, that adds a strange uncanniness to the figures that lingers in the living mind. There is something else in our world that endures in a permanent state of grief, something that maintains a disengagement from the world as much as it cannot yet quite bring itself to leave; something we have come to call ‘ghosts’.
When we think of ghosts we often think, perhaps even without realising it, of the accoutrements of mourning; cowled figures, muffled sobbing, inconsolable sadness, even the damp chill of the grave-side. Ghosts walk the same corridors, linger in the same places, trapped in a perpetual looping fragment of time. Yet this is not the experience of the dead. The dead go naked and silently, they have no sensation of the world whether it be emotional or physical. The dead have reached the end of their journey, and move on to wherever they are headed next.
What we are summoning when we think of ghosts are our own experiences, either direct or indirect, of mourning the deaths of others. We are thinking of how others will mourn ourselves.
“The main work of haunting is done by the living”
Judith Richardson, Possessions.
This conflict between the serenity of the once-living and the fears of the still-living is contrasted most strongly in the tomb of Philip’s son, John The Fearless (Jean sans Peur en Francais). John lies in effigy alongside his wife, Margaret of Bavaria, atop a tomb designed in a similar style to that of his father.
Unlike the monochromatic figures of the mourners, they are rendered in a naturalistic style, as if merely sleeping, and gaze up to Heaven with a placid reverence. They have left a world which, like our own, was bound about by chains of duty and care. In contrast, the mourners that process beneath them, lower in both social status and their physical connection to the earthly world, are contorted by grief; they wring their hands, labour with bent backs. They pursue the departing dead in an endless circle, a procession without start or end, like the souls who “sweep shadow-like around” Odysseus as he descends into Hades or the unbaptised dead who mourn their loss of Heaven in Dante’s Limbo.
“Of the first circle that surrounds the abyss.
Here, as mine ear could note, no plaint was heard
Except of sighs, that made the eternal air
Tremble, not caused by tortures, but from grief
Felt by those multitudes, many and vast,
Of men, women, and infants.”
Dante, Inferno, Canto IV
This is the two-fold moral told by the tombs of Champmol, a message that comes from the intensely religious life of the middle ages but which reflects a strangely positive view of death that is relevant to our secular times. Firstly, that the end of a life well-lived is not a time of misery for the dying but of closure and of reflection, where the ending of a thing validates its beginning. Secondly, fall too deeply into earthly cares, into the clinging-onto of materialism and mourning and wallowing in grief, and you will become as unto a ghost yourself, drained of colour and hope.
It is not the dead that haunt us, but we who haunt the dead.
Further reading – The Mourners: Tomb Sculpture from the Court of Burgundy, Sophie Jugie