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Sluter, Well of Moses

Claus Sluter (with Claus de Werve), The Well of Moses, 1395-1405 (calvary finished 1399, prophets 1402-05, painted by Jean Malouel c. 1402), Asnières stone with gilding and polychromy, slightly less than 7 meters high, originally close to 13 meters with cross. Located on the grounds of the former Chartreuse de Champmol, a Carthusian monastery in Dijon, France established by Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The prophets depicted include: Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Daniel, and Isaiah. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Dr. Zucker: We're standing on a wooden walkway suspended over water, which is actually fairly deep. Dr. Harris: Well, this is a well after all. We are looking at a beautiful monument by Claus Sluter called The Well of Moses. It got that title fairly recently, it was originally known as The Great Cross. Dr. Zucker: Of course the cross is no longer here. Let's give this a little bit of context. Dr. Harris: There's a lot of things that are no longer here, right? This monument stood in the middle of a cloister surrounded by the cells of Carthusian monks, the rooms where they would meditate and this cloister was in a monastery established by Philip the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy. Dr. Zucker: So we're talking about the late 14th Century. We're in Burgundy, in Dijon, or rather I should say just outside of the old walls of the city. This was a place that the Duke had commissioned in order that monks could continuously say prayers over his soul. Dr. Harris: It also was intended by Philip, and became his burial place and the burial place of his family. Dr. Zucker: It's important to remember that the Carthusians are a closed society. That is they dedicate themselves entirely to solitary prayer. Dr. Harris: What better environment to ensure the salvation of your soul for eternity. Dr. Zucker: It's interesting that Philip the Bold, the Duke actually seems to have really loved the Carthusians. In fact, he specified that he would be buried in a Carthusian robe and of course he wanted to be buried here. Dr. Harris: We're looking at a very well funded monastery, the most brilliant artists of Europe are working here including Claus Sluter. We're looking up at a hexagonal structure. On each side is a Prophet standing in front of a niche. Dr. Zucker: Interestingly and importantly, this is breaking with the Medieval tradition of having those figures completely embedded within the architecture. Dr. Harris: Each figure of the Prophet is separated by a lovely column with a Capital and standing on those Capital's are Angel's in positions of grieving and prayer with their wings outstretched. Above them we see a base and on the base would have stood a very tall and narrow cross with Christ on it and at the base of that cross the single, kneeling figure of Mary Magdalene. All of this was painted, you can see blue, there would have been gold and green. It really would have come alive and the monks would have been inspired in their prayer when they looked at this monument. Dr. Zucker: Sluter is able to give an individual life to each figure. The drapery really does give a sense of the movement of the body within it, maybe not so much the structures of the body but at least its engagement with the space around it. Dr. Harris: And look up at the figure of King David. First of all, a figure that would have been very important to the Duke of Burgundy, of David, himself, a King. He's so specific, so individualized. There's a depth and sense of wisdom in his personality. There's a recent suggestion that that figure next to King David, who is the Prophet Jeremiah is also a portrait of Philip the Bold. Dr. Zucker: In fact, if we look at contemporary portraits of Philip they look awfully similar. Dr. Harris: They do. Dr. Zucker: Moses is looking out past us, above us as a seer, but Zachariah looks down. Dr. Harris: And almost offers us his prophecy. Dr. Zucker: But also challenges us, challenges the monks that would have lived with this sculpture, "Do you see as I see? "Do you understand the importance of the tragedy "of the spiritual and miracle that transpires above?" Dr. Harris: We have these Angel's all in different positions, some with their arms folded on their chest, some with their arms raised, some clutching their drapery or touching their face. There's a depth of emotion in the figures of the Prophets and a real depth of emotion in the Angel's, all of which, I think, would have been inspiration to the monks. Dr. Zucker: That's important to remember. I mean, here we are at the well, the center of life of the monastery. The monastery itself was meant to continuously pray for the soul of the Duke, so in some ways this sculptural group of what we now call The Well of Moses was the engine in the center of the monastery that was meant to power, in a sense, inspire the prayer of the monks. It is one of the most spectacular late Medieval sculptures that certainly I've ever seen. (piano playing)