Even at the risk of sacrilege, it is tempting to go one step further and assert that on occasion we have to keep in mind this lost art of table decoration, now completely vanished, in order to better understand Claus Sluter and others like him.
Among the other arts, that of funeral sculpture served a clearly practical function. The task facing the sculptors charged with creating the tomb monuments for the Burgundian dukes was not one of imaginative beauty, but was rather concerned with glorifying princely grandeur. Their task was much more strictly limited and more precisely prescribed than that of the painters, who in commissioned works were allowed to give much freer reign to their creative urges and who could paint whatever they wanted when not working on a commission. The sculptor of that age probably did little work outside of his commissions and the motifs of his work were limited in number and tied to a strong tradition. Sculptors were then much more tightly dependent on the dukes than the painters. The two great Dutch artists who were enticed out of their country by the magnet of French artistic life were totally monopolized by the duke of Burgundy. Sluter lived in a house in Dijon assigned and furnished for him by the duke. He lived there like a great lord, but at the same time like an employee of the court. The court rank “varlet de chambre de monsegneur le duc de bourgogne,” which Sluter shared with his cousin Claes van de Werve and Jan van Eyck, had an authoritative meaning for the sculptors. Claes van de Werve, who continued Sluter’s work, became one of the tragic victims of art in the service of the court: kept in Dijon year in and out in order to complete the tomb monument of John the Fearless, a task for which there were never funds available, his splendidly promising career wasted away in futile waiting and he died having never been able to finish his task.
This relationship of servitude, however, runs contrary to the fact that it is in the nature of the art of sculpture always to approach a certain peak of simplicity and freedom, primarily because of the limited nature of its means, its material, and its subject matter. We call this peak of simplicity and freedom classicism. It is reached as soon as one of the great masters even be it only one, regardless of time and place, guides the chisel. No matter what the task the age intends to force upon the art of sculpture, the human figure and its clothing allow for only a few variations in their depiction in wood and stone. The differences between the Roman portrait sculpture of the Imperial period, Goujon and Colombe in the sixteenth century, and Houdon and Pajou in the eighteenth are much smaller than in any other field of art.
The art of Sluter, and those like him, shares in the eternal nature of the art of sculpture. And yet . . . we don’t perceive Sluter’s works as they really were and were intended to be. As soon as one visualizes the Moses Fountain, just in the manner it delighted its contemporaries at the time when the papal legate (1418) granted absolution to anyone who visited it with pious intentions—one realizes why we dared to mention Sluter’s art and that of the entremets in one breath.
The Moses Fountain is known only as a fragment. The first duke of Burgundy wished to see the fountain, surmounted by an image of the Mount of Calvary, put into the yard of the Carthusians in his beloved Champmol. The main part of the work is comprised of the figure of the crucified Christ with Mary, John, and the Magdalen placed at the foot of the cross. The work had already vanished, for the most part, prior to the Revolution, which so irretrievably disfigured the Champmol. Below the central part, and surrounding the base that is held up around the edge by angels, stand the six figures from the Old Testament who prophesied the death of the Messiah: Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Zachariah, each with an attached banderole on which the prophetic texts can be read. The entire depiction has to the highest degree the character of a performance. This is not so much because of the fact that the tableaux vivants or “personnages,” which during processions and banquets usually had figures with such banderoles attached to them, or that the Messiah prophecies from the Old Testament were the most important subjects of such representations, as because of the fact that this depiction has an unusually strong verbal effect about it. The words of the inscriptions have an emphasized place of importance. We only reach a full understanding of the work if we completely absorb the sacred import of those texts. “Immolabit enum universa multitudo filiorum Israel ad vesperam,” reads Moses’s dictum. “Foderunt manus meas et pedes meos, dinumeraverunt omnia ossa mea,” is the citation from the Psalms of David. “Sicut ovis ad occisionem ducetur et quasi agnus coram tondente se obmutescet et non aperiet os suum,” from Isaiah. “O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus,”Jeremiah.” Post hebdomades sexaginta duas occidetur Christus,” Daniel. “Appenderunt mercedem meam triginta argenteos,” Zachariah. So reads the lament, rising in six voices around the base of the cross. This is the essential feature of the work. And the connection between the figures and the text is stressed with such emphasis, there is something so compelling in the gesture of one figure and the face of another, that the entire group is almost in danger of losing the ataraxia that is the privilege of all great sculpture. The viewer is addressed almost too directly. Sluter knew, as few artists have, how to express the sanctity of his subject matter. But, from the point of view of pure art, this weight of sanctity constitutes something overdone. Compared with Michelangelo’s tomb figures, Sluter’s prophets are too expressive, too personal. We would perhaps consider this criticism to be doubly meritorious if more than only the head and torso of the main figure of Christ in his rigid majesty had been preserved. All we can see is how the angels, those wondrously poetic angels who in their naive grace are so infinitely more angelic than the angels of Van Eyck, direct the devotion of the prophets to the scene above them.