Friday, March 11, 2016

Dipping Into "The Well of Moses"

Copyright © Edward Riojas
Fragment of Christ, from
“The Well of Moses”
Claus Sluter. 1395-1406.
(Musée Archéologique, Dijon)

I’m guessing most folks would be surprised at the mental catalog of famous art pieces rattling around in their own heads. I can guarantee, however, that one or two of the more famous images lodged in their gray matter were not the original intent of the artist.

Take the Parthenon. It is arguably one of the most recognizable facades on the planet, but if we could see it in all its original polychromed glory, someone in the crowd would undoubtedly exclaim, “What the?! That’s not right!” The Greeks had a penchant for painting all their sculpture in rather gaudy color, and it’s only because the natural elements have eroded the paint that we readily recognize it in its present condition.

Similarly, most people would ask, “What the heck is THAT doing up there?!,” when seeing Rodin’s “The Thinker” atop his “Gates of Hell.” We have become more familiar with the piece as a separate sculpture instead of a single piece in its original, larger context.

One of my very favorite sculptures follows both scenarios. Claus Sluter’s “Well of Moses” is not what it used to be, but I for one am completely happy with it as it is. It was originally sculpted around 1400 as a funerary monument to Burgundian leader John the Fearless at the Carthusian monastery of Chartreuse de Champmol in Dijon, France.
Original, overall design of
“The Well of Moses”

Sluter’s design for the piece was well documented, and a copy was made, but the passing of time and actions of boneheads have left us with an incomplete version of the original. As a testament to Sluter’s talent, what remains is still a masterpiece of Gothic sculpture.

The original design was a theological triumph. A crucifixion scene, containing Mary, the mother of our Lord, Mary Magdalene, John, and the crucified Christ topped the piece. Supporting the crucifixion was a base composed of six prophets and smaller figures of weeping angels. The whole was to be the centerpiece for a fountain – an allegory to the Fountain of Life.
Figure of Moses from
“The Well of Moses”

Unfortunately, weathering of the exposed, upper piece was unavoidable. So too were ravages of the French Revolution, not to mention problems inherent with large amounts of water. Only a fragment of the crucified Christ remains, and is now housed in a nearby museum. The elements also dulled original coloration and gilding, and eliminated some delicate embellishments, such as a pair of copper spectacles on the figure of Jeremiah, but the present, subtle blue and gold is decidedly better and allows the sculptural voice to resonate more deeply.

The figure of Moses, even with the erroneous addition of horns, is simply imposing. So, too, are figures of the prophets David, Jeremiah, Daniel, Zechariah, and Isaiah, each posed in deeply-modelled robes. Zechariah confronts the viewer with a penetrating gaze, while David addresses the viewer in a regal pose. It is even clear through the subtle sculpting of Jeremiah that he does, indeed, need the now-absent glasses to read the Scripture in his hand.
The prophets David and
Jeremiah from “The Well of Moses.”
Note the notch in David’s robe
that originally held an

Others may argue that total restoration is always an imperative. I prefer to take it on a case-by-case basis. It is nearly impossible to imagine the Venus de Mio with arms intact, but I can certainly imagine poor Venus as less popular and less endearing had she been handed down to us whole. Likewise, I love the visual power behind Claus Sluter’s sculpture, and appreciate its artistic relevance – even when separated from its original role as a mere pedestal for something greater.

1 comment:

  1. Hi - I'm looking for the location of the drawing of the original design - do you know where in the world it is located (museum? library?). Thanks, JB (Make Lists, Not War,