Painted Literacy: Lens and Light, Celebrating the Tools that Help Us See Text

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Written with the kind assistance of Sherry Lindquist, Ph.D.

A unique pair of eyeglasses were available for the public to see and appreciate for almost four hundred years and then they disappeared unfortunately during the conflict and disruption of the French Revolution. Below is the fascinating story of the events surrounding these eyeglasses.

Claus Sluter (1350-1406) was the most creative and powerful sculptor of the late middle ages. This Netherlandish master worked in the service of the Dukes of Burgundy. His artistic genius created art objects that are still seen today in Dijon, France and his greatest creation was the Well of Moses (Moses Fountain). In the preface of her book Claus Sluter, Artist at the Court of Burgundy, Kathleen Morand comments that Sluter is “destined to become one of the great sculptors of all time”. Certainly he must be considered both pivotal and important in regards to this wonderful expression of art.

The Carthusian Monastery (better known as the Chartreuse de Champmol) was intended to be the burying place at the end of the 14th century for the Duke of Burgundy (a prince of the royal house of France), Philip the Bold and his family. Located just outside Philip’s Burgundian capital of Dijon, this monastery was originally chartered in 1385. It became a prodigious art center which drew many other artists from Paris and Flanders. It was here that Claus Sluter executed the Well of Moses. This large famous hexagonal fountain was built in the center of the cloister between 1396 and 1404. Carved in stone from Asnières, France it was a premier artwork of its time and just one of Sluter’s representative artistic achievements under Philip the Bold and Philip’s son John the Fearless (1371-1419).

Above the fountain was a tall hexagonal pillar, adorned with the figures of six prophets and six weeping angels hovering over them. Sluter took great care to create these lifelike depictions. The six-sided Well of Moses made the whole a symbol of the "fountain of life," This fountain was also crowned with a crucifix at the foot of which were the figures of the Virgin Mary, St. John, and Mary Magdalene. The Crucifixion figures were carved first, then the angels, and finally the prophets. Everything was executed with great precision and the upmost attention to detail. Then they were richly painted and gilded by Jean Malouel.

Claus Sluter sculpted the figure of the Prophet Jeremiah (thought possibly to be the author of the book of Lamentations) and provided him originally with copper spectacles. The glasses worn by Jeremiah likely were meant to emphasize the primacy of reading at the monastery and also the authority of scripture. The sculpture of David originally had a harp with ivory strings and Mary Magdalene who was on the platform of the cross originally had a copper crown. None of these very special objects survived and our interest rests primarily rests with the missing spectacles. Like the other two objects they had been made by Hennequin, a goldsmith residing in Dijon who made the three items, sold them and finally delivered them to Sluter and Malouel (APPENDIX A).

The fountain served as a cemetery cross and also as an irrigation source for the monastery’s orchard. The monastery functioned until the time of the French Revolution when it was mostly destroyed. The hexagonal base with the figures of the six prophets who had foreseen the death of Christ on the Cross (Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Daniel and Isaiah) fortunately survived. Sluter’s Calvary group and the crucifix were damaged during the first half of the 18th century and then these wonders of art and faith, powerful symbols of domination by the joined powers of church and state, were destroyed in 1791.The charterhouse was also mostly destroyed during the French Revolution. In fact the communal government of Dijon did not vote specifically to destroy the charterhouse. It was sold to a Parisian industrialist, Emmanuel Cretet, who planned to establish a textile factory on the site, and who later styled himself the “Count of Champmol.” He couldn’t make a go of the textile factory so he just sold the stones for a profit. The tombs had been removed by the communal government and were then voted to be destroyed, like the tombs of the French kings at St.-Denis. They were then restored and are now in the art museum in Dijon (Musée de Beaux-Arts).

Philip the Bold died in 1404 and Claus Sluter died 2 years later. Three major works of Claus Sluter still remain (APPENDIX B): the doorway of the former chapel with statues of Philip the Bold and Margaret of Flanders, and the Well of Moses, and the tomb itself, which is the pride of the Dijon Museum. The story regarding the copper eyeglasses likely worn by the stature of Jeremiah for over 300 years is especially interesting because, at least from all of the research of the website, there is no other story or example which compares to this (APPENDIX C).


APPENDIX A

Prochno, Renate. Die Kartause von Champmol. Grablege der Burgundischen Herzöge (1364-1477). Munich: Akademie Verlag, 2002, p. 314.
Dijon, Archives Départementales de la Côte d’Or, B11673, fol. 134:
A Hennequin Dart orfevre demour(ant) a Dijon pour la façon, vendue et delivrance d’un dyademe de cuyvre par lui fait, vendu et delivré pour l’ymaige de la Magdelene qui est sur la t(er)rasse de la croix qui est ou milieu dudit g(ra)nt cloist(re), et d’un buricle pour Jheremie le p(ro)phete, par marchié a lui fait par lesdiz Jehan Maluel et Claux Slutre et plus(ieur)s aut(re)s des gens de mons(eigneur). Paié a lui par sa quittance en la fin de q(ue)lle la c(er)tifficac(i)on d’iceulx Maluel et Claux donnee le IIe jour de janv(ier) mil CCCC et Il est contenue : II l. X. s. t.

Translation of this is as follows:
To Hennequin of … (art? or possibly att), goldsmith, residing in Dijon, for making, selling and delivering a copper crown by him made, sold, and delivered for the image of the Magdalene that is on the platform of the cross that is in the middle of the said large cloister, and a [pair of] spectacles for Jeremiah, the prophet, by agreement made with him by Jean Malouel and Claus Sluter and several other of the people of milord. Paid to him by his quittance, at the end of which the certification of the same Malouel and Claus, given on the 2nd day of January, the year 1402, and consisting of 4 livres, 10 sous tournois. Common Era date was actually January 2, 1403.

APPENDIX B

The Chartreuse de Champmol, the monastery, is now a garden of the Psychiatric hospital in Dijon, France
The Portal of the Church of the Chartreuse de Champmol now serves as the entrance to the Chapel of the Psychiatric Hospital built in the grounds of the Chartreuse.
The Moses fountain stands in the grounds of the Hospital de la Chartreuse.
The Bust of Christ and other Calvary fragments are in the Musée Archéologique, Dijon.
The Tomb of Philip the Bold is in the Musée de Beaux-Art, Dijon.
The 16th century duplicate of the entire structure exists outside of the Hôpital général Dijon.

APPENDIX C

If you wish to learn more you are referred to:
Art from the Court of Burgundy, The Patronage of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless, 1364-1419, ed. Stephen Fliegel and Sophie Jugie, exhibition catalogue, Cleveland and Dijon, Paris: RMN, 2004
Claus Sluter, Artist at the Court of Burgundy, Kathleen Morand, (University of Texas Press, Austin, 1991)
Renate Prochno, Die Kartause Von Champmol. Grablege Der Burgundischen Herzöge (1364-1477) (Munich: Akademie Verlag, 2002).
Sherry C.M. Lindquist, "Accounting for the Status of Artists at the Chartreuse De Champmol," Gesta XLI, no. 1 (2002): 15-28.


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