Claus Sluter

(c. 1360—1406)

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(b Haarlem, c.1350; d Dijon, 1405/6).

Netherlandish stone sculptor, active mainly in Dijon. He was the greatest sculptor of his time in northern Europe and a figure of enormous importance in the transition from International Gothic to a more weighty and naturalistic style. He is first mentioned in Brussels (c.1379) in a document that says he came from Haarlem. In 1385 he entered the service of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in his capital Dijon. All of Sluter's surviving work was done for Philip, and almost all of it remains in Dijon. For the Chartreuse de Champmol, a monastery founded by Philip, he carved figures for the portal of the chapel in the early 1390s, and made a fountain group, the only part of which to survive intact is the base, known as the Well of Moses (1395–1403). The monastery was destroyed during the French Revolution, and the portal and the Well of Moses are now in the grounds of the psychiatric hospital that occupies its site. The Well features six full-length figures of prophets of monumental dignity; they convey an intense sense of physical presence, and as character studies rival the prophets of Donatello, which they preceded by about twenty years. Originally Sluter's figures were painted (by Malouel) and the figure of Jeremiah is known to have worn copper spectacles, the record of payment for which still survives. Of the Calvary group that surmounted the Well (symbolizing the ‘Fountain of Life’) only fragments survive in the Archaeological Museum in Dijon: they include the head and torso of the figure of Christ—one of Sluter's noblest works, in which the expression of suffering stoically endured is deeply moving. Sluter's last work was the tomb of Philip the Bold, begun in 1404 and unfinished at the sculptor's death (Mus. B.-A., Dijon). Most of the work on it was carried out by Sluter's nephew and assistant Claus de Werve (d1439), but the figures of pleurants (weepers or mourners) that form a frieze around the sarcophagus are from the master's own hand, and although they are only about 40 cm (15 in.) high they possess massive solemnity. They show Sluter's extraordinary ability to use the heavy folds of drapery for expressive effect; indeed some of the mourners are so completely enveloped in their voluminous cowls that they are in effect nothing else but drapery. Sluter's work had a powerful influence on his contemporaries—on painters as well as sculptors. The emphatic plasticity of the Master of Flémalle's figures, for example, has Sluter as its source, and in his Entombment (Courtauld Gal., London, c.1420), which stands at the head of the Early Netherlandish tradition of painting, the angel who wipes away a tear with the back of his hand is a quotation from the Well of Moses.

Subjects: Art.

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