Sunday, April 17, 2011

Alabaster Pilgrims: The Journey from Life -- to Life Abundant

Outside the royal city of Madrid lies Philip II's great palace of death, El Escorial. The king retired there to die a long and painful death in 1598. He surrounded himself with the sarcophagi of the kings and queens who had predeceased him -- as well as relics he had rescued from certain destruction in Protestant regions across the Pyrenees.

Like the royal court itself, death had its attendants. Philip II annexed a monastery to his palace, so that perpetual masses could be said for his soul. The Spanish poet Garcia Lorca summed up Spanish attitudes toward death: "In all other countries death is the end. It arrives and the curtain falls. No so in Spain. In Spain, on the contrary, the curtain only rises at that moment...." Philip II intended to keep that veil between the worlds raised.

But Lorca must have never visited the 13th and 14th century tombs of the dukes of Burgundy in Dijon. The tombs reside in a "charterhouse" or monastery for the Carthusians, an austere monastic order. As they prayed the hours, the monks walked the cloister, a sheltered courtyard adjacent to the church. The dukes commissioned miniature cloisters at the base of their tombs, filled with statues of mourning monks. These mourning monks would attend them in perpetuity, circling their bodies in perpetual prayer.

Renovation in the monastery in Burgundy, now a museum, allowed these sixteen-inch alabaster figures to walk on. As part of an exhibit called "The Mourners," they traveled from the Metropolitan Museum in New York to the Minneapolis Institute for the Arts this winter. The exhibit closed on Palm Sunday. Walking with these alabaster pilgrims was the way to begin Holy Week.

As they walk, the monks move through the postures of grief: faces contorted with weeping, bent, burdened shoulders, downcast heads, a cowled hand wiping a tear from a cowled face. Despite the unyielding stone, their robes reveal forward motion. The monks still walk their cloister, offering frozen alabaster prayers for the departed souls of the dukes. The curtain is always lifted.

As we move through Holy Week, we journey toward resurrection. We want to sprint toward Easter, but these stone figures remind us to take it slow, tend to our tears -- and watch as the curtain slowly rises.

The transit from life -- to life abundant.


  1. If you are interested, here is a website about "The Mourners" exhibit: If you click on the tabs for "The Tomb" and "The Arcades" you can "travel around" the tombs and see the praying monks in context. Even in web format it is really quite striking how you can feel the movement, and feel the mourning, and, with some of the figures, even sense the curtain rising, too....

  2. Incredible! I don't know whether to marvel at the beauty of the figures or be absorbed in their mourning...

  3. Amazingly enough, I was having coffee with my uncle this morning, and he was talking about this. Now that I have read the story, it's a bit like an Iberian version of the Terracota Warriors of Xi'an, but with crucifixes instead of spears.