We are fortunate in the Bay Area to have a treasure trove of Christian art dating back to the Middle Ages at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Right now, in addition to the usual stellar collection, a visiting exhibit called, “The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy” gives us a chance to think more deeply about what it means to “pray for All Souls,” as we have been invited to do at Mass during this month of November, and to discover what a few sculptures might teach us about prayer.
The 37 devotional figures in the exhibit, created in the 14th & 15th centuries from alabaster to adorn the tombs of Philip the Bold and his son John the Fearless, are all unique in their emotional impact and in their postures of prayer. The figures range from choir boy to bishop. Some carry rosaries or prayer books; some look heavenward, while others gaze downward. Several are weeping. Cowls cover the faces of many, either partially or completely, though most faces are visible if you stoop to peer underneath. For Philip the Bold, the commissioning of his own tomb was intended as a form of personal prayer in which the statues are “designed to perform for all eternity the vigil for the dead, offering up prayers for the salvation of the deceased.” More importantly, they remind us, as Jesus said, to “pray always” (Luke 18:1), and they suggest that our prayers and prayer stances can be as varied as the needs we bring before God.
Visit the Legion of Honor’s interactive 3-D site, which allows 360° access to these remarkable pieces of art: mourners.org. The exhibition continues until December 31st.