That Claus Sluter
is profoundly innovative in both design and execution is almost universally acknowledged. Scholars
in large measure attribute to him the introduction of individualization
, the use of psychological
subtlety, the depiction of pathos
, a quality of monumentality
, and elements of theatrical
expression. Examined in the context of his peers and predecessors, Sluter
’s developments are revolutionary
. The paucity
information available about him, however, particularly with respect to his early life, results in a bit of a mystery: from where did this tremendously original and astonishingly influential aesthetic
come? The period in which Sluter
worked seems to suggest a potential source: the religious phenomenon known as the “devotio moderna
”. Changes in the orientation of religious
systems have produced artists of similar import in other historical
periods, and the “devotio moderna
,” with its conceptual decentralization
and new focus on internal, personal communication with God
, is precisely the sort of paradigm shift
during which artists
can create a new approach to art
by reacting to, and developing, the theology
of their time.1
The “devotio moderna” is perhaps best exemplified by the writings of Thomas a Kempis.2 Advising in his book The Imitation of Christ a new sort of worship, based primarily around humility and simplicity, and a certain indifference to the structure of religious authority, a Kempis was, in some senses, “one of the forerunners of the Reformation.”3 The “devotio moderna”, however, was not an oppositional revolt against established doctrine; it merely sought to relocate the center of religiosity in the individual, rather than in the observance of ceremonial rituals or in ostentatious, demonstrative acts of psuedo-piety. Nonetheless, its most ardent adherents were extremely pious, bordering on a sort of mysticism. In their celebration of simple forms of faith and the organic honesty of the peasant’s life, they almost seemed to desire a “return to…pre-intellectual life…to everyday life.”4 This fervor, after dissipating across the cultural landscape as a whole, resulted in a new emphasis on the individual, and a de-emphasizing of traditional forms of religious worship. It was this focus on the personal and the emotional that informed the surviving body of Claus Sluter’s work on the Chartreuse de Champmol.5
Although his exact birth date is unknown, scholars believe that Claus Sluter was born in the middle of the fourteenth century in Haarlem, in the county of Holland. Based on a good amount of indirect evidence which intimates that Sluter joined the Brussels Corporation of Stonemasons and Sculptors in 1379, and by the fact that his strongest, most powerful works were executed in the 1390’s, one scholar has suggested that he was born “not earlier than about 1360.”6 He had traveled to Dijon by 1385, and was employed in the workshop of Jean de Marville, who had assembled a team of artists two years earlier to carry out work on the Chartreuse de Champmol, a Carthusian monastery being built by Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. At the time of his arrival in Dijon, Sluter was not terribly well-established.7 By the time of Jean de Marville’s death in 1389, however, Sluter’s reputation had apparently developed considerably: he was almost immediately appointed Marville’s successor and leader of the shop. Though in 1399, Sluter became seriously ill, and in 1404 entered an Augustinian monastery, he made good use of the next seventeen years.8 Until his own death in 1406, Sluter took full advantage of his status as head of his own workshop, constructing sculptures far more original and powerful than he possibly could have under Jean de Marville, whose own designs were substantially more traditional.9 He executed three works of astounding importance, all for the Chartreuse de Champmol: the portal, the Well of Moses, and the Tomb of Philip the Bold. The former two exemplify the principles common to both Sluter’s original contributions to his art and the “devotio moderna”.10
The portal, begun in 1390 after a revision of Marville’s initial plan by Sluter, is “a dynamically unified composition in which five monumental figures play their roles with much the same freedom of expression as was enjoyed by…living actors….”11 That Sluter achieved such simultaneously free and monumental forms is not simply a matter of highly skilled technical execution, but is due also to his extremely innovative design of the portal statuary. The five figures, of the Virgin and Child, Philip the Bold and his wife, Margaret of Flanders, and their patron saints, St. John the Baptist and St. Catherine, are executed almost totally in the round, more independent of the portal walls than statuary traditionally was. By sculpting them in this fashion, Sluter departs utterly from the Romanesque style and its relief carvings, and into a non-stylized, non-abstract realism, and establishes his sculptures as an element of the portal equal, if not greater, in importance than its architecture. Not only do they exist in the round, but the figures “can even kneel in their niches, thus denying any structural role” that column statues usually seem to possess.12 He thus allows the figures to exhibit a level of interaction impossible with relief: Philip and Margaret, actual portraits and very true to life, kneel in prayer to the Virgin, as though begging mercy and entrance into Heaven, while St. John and St. Catherine seem to plead on their behalf; meanwhile, the Virgin, portrayed here as “a robust and matronly woman,” looks to the Christ child.13 These innovations are not simply important in a formal sense.
The anatomical realism of the figures affords Sluter the opportunity to characterize them through postures and gestures: the Virgin’s pose seems at once judicious and animated, perhaps even kinetic, and the two saints flanking the patrons convey a sense of anxious concern, with their tentatively expectant poses.14 The facial details of the highly individualized heads further enhance Sluter’s characterizations. Mary’s expression, though serene, possesses a certain seriousness, indicating a contemplative evaluation of the patrons. Philip and Margaret appear humble and severe, as one would imagine they might in such a situation. St. John the Baptist, with his deeply furrowed brow and dynamic hand gesture, seems urgently concerned, as though he is experiencing deep and genuine consternation over the fate of the Duke and Duchess. St. Catherine, finally, seems imploring but serene, perhaps demonstrating a quiet, optimistic faith that Philip and Margaret will enter Heaven. These physiological and psychological details are possible because of the figures’ independence from the architecture. They are the primary focus of both the artist and the audience, as “the architecture has shrunken to a mere backdrop and has been subordinated to them.”15 That Sluter’s figures subsume the portal’s architecture in their monumentality demonstrates that his concern with them exceeded the influence tradition had on him. He was interested in the humanity and individual characterization of his figures, more so than he was in the normative manner of decorating a church’s portal. While one scholar sees this as “the vitality of the portal figures representing an exuberance that would seem to celebrate Sluter’s own exhilaration in being freed from the restraints that he must have endured as a workshop assistant,” there is another explanation. The vibrancy of his sculptures might celebrate the newfound freedom from rigid religious constructions of faith and worship that the “devotio moderna” represented. The coherence and force with which he executes his non-traditional articulation of the portal scene suggests a confident deviation from inflexible and somewhat oppressive aesthetic archetypes, done in order to focus on the individual and personal elements of religion.
It was not only in deviating from convention that Sluter demonstrated his inclination toward the personalization of sculptural depiction. The Well of Moses, which Sluter began planning for in 1395, was unlike the portal in that it did not need to conform to a specific location or purpose. Though planned for the center of the quadrangle of the monastery, the requirements which Sluter was obliged to meet were more vague: the piece, the central component of which was a Calvary, had to be appropriate to the lifestyle of the Carthusian monks, whose monasteries were, like the monks themselves, very ascetic.16 The habits of their daily lives were based on the “ideals of Solitude and Divine contemplation…in order to affect union with Christ in a life of prayer…” and as such, the Calvary depicted directly above six prophets was quite a natural selection.17 hilip the Bold was also absent from Dijon for much of this period, spending quite a bit of time in Paris at the royal court. Consequently, Sluter was relatively free from constraint and the oversight of his patron (though Philip usually gave a fairly free hand to his artists), and the Well of Moses can be analyzed as the first work he designed and executed entirely according to his own vision.
The design of the well is structurally original in its use of the cornice on top of the hexagonal plinth, on which the Crucifixion and several other figures were to be located; usually, such monuments would “envisage the Cross as the termination of a tapering architectural structure.”18 Sluter’s inclusion of a stage-like cornice makes clear one component of his vision: to present the figures in a dramatic and somewhat theatrical manner, derived from the staging of contemporary Mystery plays.19 Only fragments of the Calvary scene survive, including Christ on the cross as man of Sorrows. Under him were the standing figures of John the Apostle and the Virgin, and kneeling at the base of the cross in sorrow, Mary Magdalene. Below the Crucifixion, around the hexagon, are six Old Testament prophets who foretold Jesus’ coming and his death. There is evidence to support the theory that each prophet was sculpted after a model, primarily the stunning individuality and realism they all posses.20 Traditionally idealized, the prophets here are distinctive and human, each in a discernable psychological state or manifesting a specific disposition, and each is represented with a very natural anatomy. It is not necessary to describe each of the figures, as a brief examination of Sluter’s treatment of Moses will suffice to highlight the important elements of his approach to the sculpting of people.21
His dramatically deeply cut drapery, the quality of which is one of Sluter’s “truly original” stylistic traits, implies a solid, anatomical, human form beneath its layers and light- and shadow-casting folds.22 Moses is holding tablets of the Law, and seems to burn with immensely severe rage (he is “angered at his people”) frowning deeply and gazing off toward a distant horizon, anticipating the Calvary depicted above him.23 His face is marked with the creases and lines of age and worry, and his intense monumentality underscore the import of his prophecy and message. The inscription on the scroll that is draped over his shoulder is a terse, pointed explanation of his anger: “The children of Israel do not listen to me.” Unlike other previous and contemporary sculptures and paintings of the Holy figures, Sluter’s Moses seems to present an entire identity outside of his strictly biblical character, complete with anatomy, pathos, and personality. It is a dramatic and highly personal evocation of the prophet, and again underscores Sluter’s fascination with individual expressions of human emotion and character, very much in keeping with emphasis placed on the individual during the “devotio moderna.”
Other elements of the work as a whole also intersect with the “devotio moderna.” From the bottom to the top, the piece is organized according to a certain hierarchy: Jesus, the human form of God, is at the top, surrounded by three humans who saw him crucified. Between the Calvary and the Old Testament prophets are mourning angels, who act as intermediaries between the Divine and man, and between the Old and New Testaments. Last come the imposing prophets around the base. This organization visually suggests the importance of man in relation to the Divine, or at least their interconnectedness. That Christ is depicted in such an emotional and personal way, and as man of Sorrows is suggestive of the “devotio moderna,” as this was a popular representation of the Savior during this time. And the entire structure was quite contextually appropriate as a subject for the contemplation of the Carthusian monks, whose reflective, meditative prayers were designed to achieve a personal connection with God as well. Also, by choosing to devise his Well at least partially with a recognizable theatricality in mind, Sluter elects to draw the formula for his work not from a strictly religious source or text, nor from ceremonial tradition, but rather from a popular form of performance.24 Moreover, the theatre’s primary focus is the interaction between various characters, the sort of interactiondemonstrated by Sluter’s figures, both with each other and with the audience. As the Mystery plays were a public spectacle enacted for crowds of laypeople and were accessible in an informal sense, Sluter’s intention seems to have been to dramatize, personalize, and humanize the figures of the sculptural group.
In that his aim was to express emotions and characterize his figures in a new way, his individualization was indicative of a certain kind of humanism25; it is Sluter’s interest in the human elements of his subjects that informs his revolutionary aesthetic, its theatricality and its personalization. This interest may very well have been developed partially as a result of the “devotio moderna,” manifestations of which had surrounded Sluter from Haarlem until his death.26 Before his contributions, artists had been content to rely on the religious meaning of their subjects to give their works potency and weight. Sluter, however, placed more value on the individual pathos and personality of the figures than his contemporaries did, and in doing so exemplified, and perhaps helped develop, the sort of nascent humanism present in the “devotio moderna,” a humanism that was to define Western art for centuries after his death.
Huizinga, J. Waning of the Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.
McNamee, M.B. “The Origin of the Vested Angel as a Eucharistic Symbol in
Flemish Painting.” Art Bulletin, v. 54, September 1985, p. 274.
Morand, Kathleen. Claus Sluter: Artist at the Court of Burgundy. Austin:
University of Texas Press: 1991.
Pauwels, Henri. “Claus Sluter.” Encyclopedia of World Art. Ed. W.G.
Constable. 17 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967.
Pearman, Sarah Jane. “Claus Sluter.” The Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. 34
vols. New York: Grove’s Dictionaries Inc.: 1996.
Smith, Jeffrey Chipps. “The Chartreuse de Champol in 1486: The Earliest
Visitor’s Account.” Gazette des Beaux Arts, v. 106, 1985, pp. 1-6.
Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.:
Suduiraut, Sophie Guillot de. “International Gothic Style.” Sculpture. Ed.
Georges Duby. 4 vols. New York: Taschen, 1996.
1 The most obvious other example is Gianlorenzo Bernini, whose life and development of sculpture is in some ways similar to that of Sluter.
2 Morand, 20, and Huizinga, 145, 205.
3 Morand, 20.
4 Huizinga, 205.
5 “It is not possible that Sluter should have been unaware of the movement that was sweeping the country,” Morand says about the “devotio moderna.” Morand, 20.
6 Morand, 18. Morand notes also that Sluter evidently did not posses a reputation when he arrived in Dijon in 1385, and that there are no records of any early works. This leads her to conclude that, “although the path of genius is less predictable than that of mediocrity, it seems probable that he was at the most in his early thirties when he began his work on the portal of the Chartreuse de Champmol, and that he was still in his forties when he died.” 17. See Morand, 16-27 for more on Sluter’s early biography.
7 Morand, 49. Morand notes that Sluter was paid an average wage in Marville’s shop. This suggests that he had not completed any substantial or very successful work yet.
8 Joining a monastery was “a step that had been taken by a number of those who practiced the Modern Devotion,” and “shows that Sluter was already well known to the monks…and had been in contact with them throughout the period of his life in Dijon.” Morand, 21.
9 Morand, 79. Marville’s idea for the portal was fairly typical: three figures whose positions were dictated by the architecture of the portal, lacking any of the “vital intercommunication” present in Sluter’s design.
10 The Tomb of Philip the Bold posses some of these characteristics, but they are subordinated to the requirements of the commission and to the focus on Philip. Also, the restoration of the tomb makes it difficult to confidently locate it in the context of Sluter’s work as whole.
11 Morand, 79-80.
12 Snyder, 65. It should be noted that Sluter’s design did not even include a canopy over the Virgin, and the canopy she appears under now was evidently added in the late 19th-century. Morand, 314.
13 Snyder, 65.
14 Another analysis of Mary’s position: “Seeing the Child’s terror at the sight of the instruments of the Passion in the canopy above His head, the Virgin has thrown back her arm in a violent, convulsive gesture.” Pauwels, 115. In any case, it is still a very individual and innovative characterization.
15 Snyder, 65.
16 The Carthusians, whose chief ambition was a personal connection with God, can be seen and understood in the context of the “devotio moderna” as well.
17 Morand, 92. Morand discusses the possibility that Philip the Bold’s participation in the coming Crusade, and his involvement with a chivalric group called the Order of the Passion of Jesus Christ, also enhanced the relevance of the Well of Moses. 91-93.
18 Morand, 97.
19 It is commonly asserted that Mystery Plays informed this theatricality. Morand, 112, Snyder, 67. Snyder also notes that the plays included Old Testament prophets reading their texts in between acts.
20 Snyder, 67.
21 Though Moses is the most famous of the prophets, any one of them would suffice here, as they are more or less equivalently developed as individuals.
22 Snyder, 66-67.
23 Snyder, 67.
24 With respect to the Mystery plays, Snyder cites the scholar Emile Male, whose work I could not find. However, elsewhere, M.B. McNamee claims that Male was discussing “the theatre as was developed outside of the church.” McNamee, 274.
25 “…the “devotio moderna” can be seen as one of the forerunners of the Reformation and…was opening the way to humanist ideas.” Morand, 20.
26 “Claus Sluter would still have been a very young man when Gerhard Groote drew crowds and inspired religious fervor in Haarlem…” Morand, 20.