NEW YORK — In a sense, they've spent the last five centuries walking, but 37 statues from a French nobleman's tomb are debuting on their biggest journey yet with an exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The 15th century alabaster statues -- considered treasures of Medieval Europe -- have never before left the city of Dijon, where they march perpetually around the base of the tomb of John the Fearless and his wife Margaret of Bavaria.
Now they can be seen walking two-by-two down a plain catwalk in the heart of the Met in the exhibition The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy.
Carved over a 25-year-period by sculptors Jean de la Huerta and Antoine le Moiturier, each statue represents a mourner -- mostly ecclesiastical figures such as a bishop, a choirboy and rows of monks from the Carthusian order.
In their normal setting in Dijon they are only partially seen as they blend in between miniature Gothic arches lacing the base of the wealthy and powerful couple's black marble tomb.
The open display at New York's Met has allowed them to loosen up, emerging as individuals with sometimes surprising results.
Far from being pompous advertisements for the deceased couple's religious devoutness and social standing, the monks and priests of the procession exude individuality, humanity and a cheeky strain of rebellion.
The higher-ranking clerics at the front maintain serious faces and hold books.
Many are clearly struck with emotion. Several dab at their eyes with their robes. Others have pulled their huge cowls far over their heads, obscuring their faces.
But as the procession continues, the mood becomes more uneven. One monk pulls at his apparently over-tight belt. Another blows his nose. One pulls back his cowl to see better.
"It's the first time I've seen them like this. Before I never saw their backs," said Francois Rebsamen, mayor of Dijon, who helped host a preview of the exhibition.
"It's very funny. The ones at the front are more official looking. They have the higher rank. At the back it's different."
Although completed many years later, the alabaster procession is meant to record the actual funeral for John the Fearless, the second duke of Burgundy, who died in 1419.
They have walked tirelessly in place beneath his remains ever since.
"They've only moved once in all their history and by only a few hundred meters," Rebsamen said.
Renovation work at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Dijon, where the tomb is housed, prompted the idea of separating the statues and putting them on tour as centerpieces in an exhibition on the mourners.
They will be shown, along with related figures, in seven US cities and Paris before returning home in 2012.
"The expressive power attained by the 15th-century sculptors of these statuettes will be quite a revelation to many of our visitors," said Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum.
The "phenomenal" works "capture the entire spectrum of emotions connected with human loss," he said. "When the sculptures are grouped together, the viewer is transfixed."
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