Claus Sluter, “Well of Moses”, 1395-1404, Cloister of the Chartreuse de Champmol, Dijon, France
Claus Sluter was an influential master of early Netherlandish sculpture, who moved beyond the dominant French taste of the time and into highly individual monumental, naturalistic forms. The works of Claus Sluter infuse realism with spirituality and monumental grandeur.Sluter’s influence was extensive among both painters and sculptors of 15th-century northern Europe.
The six-sided “Well of Moses”, now lacking its crowning Calvary group, which made the whole a symbol of the “fountain of life,” presents six life-sized prophets holding books, scrolls, or both. The figures, beginning with Moses, proceed counterclockwise to David, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Daniel, and Isaiah. Moses was placed directly below the face of Christ, and the location of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, was at Jesus’ back, as befits a precursor.
Zechariah looks down sadly as Daniel vigorously points to his prophecy. On the other side of Daniel, and serving to balance Daniel’s passionate temperament, is the calm reflective Isaiah. This juxtaposition reveals Sluter’s use of alternating naturalistic balances. The head and torso fragment of Christ from the Calvary reveal a power and intensity of restrained expression that conveys overwhelming grandeur. Suffering and resignation are mingled, a result of the way the brow is knitted, though the lower part of the face, narrow and emaciated, is calm and without muscular stress.
The “Well of Moses” was originally painted in several colours by Jean Malouel, painter to the duke, and gilded by Hermann of Cologne. The figures of the composition dominate the architectural framework but also reinforce the feeling of support that the structure provides through their largeness of movement.