In medieval Europe, death was a lifetime preoccupation, particularly for rulers. Their earthly departure occasioned elaborate ceremonies and months of public grieving. Death was not so much the end of life then as a way station on a spiritual journey.

So it was for the Dukes of Burgundy, who for much of the 15th century ruled what is now northern France, the Netherlands and Belgium. When the second Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless, was assassinated in 1419 he was memorialized in an elaborate tomb topped with life-size effigies of him and his wife, each watched over by a pair of angels with immense, gold-gilded wings. Beneath them, in an intricately carved Gothic arcade, circled 40 mourners carved in alabaster, draped in mourning robes and bowed in eternal prayer for the salvation of the royal couple.

In an extraordinary exhibition, 38 of the Duke's mourners are on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through April 17. Most of the mourners, which are regarded as national treasures in France, have never before left the city of Dijon, where the tombs of John, his wife, and his father, Philip the Bold, are now the centerpiece of the city's Musée des Beaux-Arts.

Parts of the effigies and the tombs were destroyed by mobs in 1793 during the French Revolution, but most of the mourners were hidden away and survived. In the early 19th century the tombs were restored and the mourners returned to their carved niches. The nationalistic fervor that defined much of the 19th century sparked a new appreciation of the skill and originality of the carvings.

"It was a time when it was important to show that the history of art in France was not always under the influence of Italy and classicism, so there was a renewed interest in French medieval art, " said Sophie Jugie, director of the Beaux-Arts museum in Dijon. She was in Minneapolis to oversee the installation of the sculptures, which debuted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last spring and will travel to museums in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Richmond, Va., before returning to France for a show at the Musée de Cluny in Paris in 2012.

Mysteriously expressive

Each of the mourners is only about 16 inches tall, but they are extraordinarily mysterious and expressive. All are wrapped in long robes, many of them with deep hoods that fall over the faces and conceal all expression. Even so, their postures and gestures suggest deep emotional distress as they walk with bowed heads, a hand raised to brush away tears or to finger rosary beads. Some clasp their hands in prayer, others read devotional texts or gaze upward as if awaiting a sign from heaven.

Their bodies are swaddled in heavy mourning cloaks, but their posture and gestures are still apparent in the twist of hips, stride of legs or thrust of shoulders. Parts of some figures -- a book, the beads, a shoe -- show traces of the paint that originally made them even more lifelike. Priests and a bishop at the head of the procession wear their own garments, some of them apparently fur-lined, as you can see from delicate striations on the turned-back sleeves and pelt stripes visible on the garment's inner folds. Next come the Duke's family and members of the court, followed by clerks, townspeople and other members of the household.

In their original setting the mourners would have appeared to be walking in a rectangular arcade, but at the Minneapolis museum they process down a long corridor lined with medieval tapestries depicting courtly life. The hall echoes with recordings of authentic Burgundian court music performed by the Rose Ensemble, a Twin Cities-based choral group specializing in medieval and Renaissance music.

"I was relying on the absolute gorgeous beauty of the objects to entice you on," said Bill Skodje, a sculptor who designed the installation. "Once you start looking at their subtleties, it's awesome that they could convey so much. Under the heavy fur-lined coats you can see the body language of each figure. You wouldn't have seen that in the original tomb, but to carve in that detail was an act of devotion in itself."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431