“We Who Haunt The Dead” – The Mourners of Philip The Bold, Duke of Burgundy

January 29, 2018 § Leave a comment

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 they are still there.
The Mourners

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 […], but rather reprises a tradition in use since the mid-thirtieth century, numerous examples of which can be found in the monuments to the French kings in the basilica of Saint-Denis. 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.

The Mourners

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.

The Mourners

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

mourners1 (1)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 Alighieri, Inferno – Canto V

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. 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 cleaving-to 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.

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Old Style Tales, The Yellow Booke V

September 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

My homage to windswept vilages and ghostly pursuers, The Bridge At Barrowdale, has been published in Old Style Tale’s collection The Yellow Booke V. The collection can be ordered as a hard copy or downloaded as a PDF, and features illustrated stories from Ever Dundas, Thomas Olivieri and M. Grant Kellermeyer amongst others.

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I SPENT A UNSETTLED EVENING, sitting in a wooden chair by the drawing room’s single window and staring out at the phosphorescent sea. The quiet of the cottage, so inviting in the clamour of the City, now seemed haunted by a spectral silence. I lit a small lantern as night fell but the flickering flame jittered queasily against the warped glass of the window and eventually I pinched it out rather than suffer its fevered dancing. No moon rose into the sky but a bright scatter of stars shone their sparse light down to sparkle on the breaking waves. The eerie bark of a family of seals called from somewhere offshore, rising over the susurration of water on stone. Eventually I slept, fitfully, wrapped in coarse blankets and dreaming of sea-cold fingers reaching out of the night.

Hobbledy-Ghost! Oh, Hobbledy-Ghost!

July 1, 2013 § 1 Comment

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Hobbledy-Ghost,
Oh, Hobbledy-Ghost,
I am not scared
of the Hobbledy-Ghost.

Hobbledy-Ghost,
Oh, Hobbledy-Ghost,
We are not scared
of the Hobbledy-Ghost.

We have candle
And we have a book
We have a bell
And a bird on a hook
We will not falter
And we will not sway
We’ll make the Hobbledy-Ghost
Go away

Hobbledy-Ghost,
Oh, Hobbledy-Ghost,
I am so scared
of the Hobbledy-Ghost.

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