Isabella of Bourbon, wife of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy died, at 31 in 1465. Twelve years later, her daughter Mary built a funeral monument for her in Antwerp’s St. Michael’s Abbey. The tomb was surrounded by 24 figures of mourning family members and ancestors, known as “weepers”.
Today only ten weepers remain. Fourteen are lost.
Symbolizing the importance of the Burgundy dynasty, these 24 bronze noblemen and women stood in niches. Mourners in bronze, guiding a bronze effigy of Isabella which lay in repose above them to death. During the Iconoclast Fury of 1566, rampaging radical Protestants were destroying idolatrous images in Catholic churches and monasteries. They found Isabella’s tomb and stripped it of its decorations.
The weepers disappeared.
Isabella’s early death meant that she had little significance or influence during her lifetime, but in death she became a symbol, a medeval poster girl for the wealth of the Dukes of Burgundy, which would later be inherited by her only daughter Mary. The duke’s second marriage failed to produce any sons and Mary inherited the entire duchy, and her marriage to a Habsburg had major repercussions for centuries.
In 1691, a century and a half after they were lost, ten of Isabella’s weepers resurfaced in Amsterdam in the hands of one Pieter De Vos, ‘clerk of the secretariat’. De Vos who had inherited them from his father.
The burgomasters of Amsterdam promptly purchased the statues which they thought represented the counts and countesses of Holland. In exchange for the statues De Vos received an annual pension of 150 guilders.
De Vos died in 1721 so the city had therefore paid De Vos around four thousand five hundred guilders for the mourners.
The clothes worn by the mourners are of an earlier fashion than Isabella’s. This is probably because the mourners were copied from older, now long lost tombs. The statuettes are copies from two earlier tombs, which were the work of the sculptor Delemer, the painter Rogier van der Weyden and the bronze-founder Jacob de Gerines, commissioned by Philip the Good. It’s thought that models for the Amsterdam statuettes were supplied by Delemer or his workshop.
The mourners are not Isabella’s immediate family: they represent her ancestors. Two of the statuettes have been identified. One is Emperor Louis of Bavaria with the imperial crown on his head and an orb in his hand and Albrecht of Bavaria, with cross of St Antony around his neck. The statuettes represent a kind of Late Middle Ages fashion parade of Burgundian nobility. It’s worth noting the huge amount of cloth involved in these garments: the sleeves are exceptionally long, as are the robes. They would have been heavy to wear, to walk around in. Various kinds of headgear are worn, both by men and women. The Late Middle Ages fashion for women was to have shaven heads, covered by headwear.
The ten weepers have been on display in the Rijksmuseum for around a hundred years. The rest of the tomb, with its statue of Isabella, is now in Antwerp cathedral. Nothing more of the tomb’s furnishings survives.