Musee de Cluny
The Musee de Cluny, officially known as Musee National du Moyen (Museum of the Middle Ages) is located in Paris, France. Displayed art includes a magnificent collection of medieval art in a 15th century Gothic mansion. As an added bonus, underneath the museum are the ruins of ancient Roman baths. The building is a true relic of the continually changing landscape of the history of Paris.
Stepping into the courtyard onto cobblestones, the noise of the street melts away behind stone walls. Time is suspended as the architecture of the hotel buildings surrounds you, every surface beckoning your glance with the discovery of some architectural adornment. Treading across the stones into the medieval structure, you know this to be a special place, the history of past personages permeates the air.
The ruins of the Roman bath date from 200 AD. The best preserved section is the Frigidarium (cold water bath), with ribbed vaulting resting on consoles evoking ships’ prows. This unusual motif is explained by the builders of the bathes, who were Paris’ boatmen. On display is “Pillar of the Boatmen” a column dedicated to Jupiter from 1st century AD. It was found beneath Notre Dame’s chancel and is believed to be the oldest sculpture created in Paris.
The building was founded by the rich and powerful 15th century abbot of Cluny Abbey, Jacques d’Amboise, who constructed his mansion over the ruins. The Hotel de Cluny hosted other notable residents including Mary Tudor, widow of Louis XII, beginning in 1515. Seventeenth century occupants included several papal nuncios, including Mazarin. It was used as an observatory by astronomer Charles Messier, who published his observations in 1771. The building was seized during the French Revolution; at one point a physician used the magnificent chapel on the first floor as a dissection room; eventually being taken over by Alexandre du Sommerard, an amateur art collector who was fascinated with the Middle Ages. After his death in 1842, the government bought the building and his collection.
The museum is entered through the cobble stoned Court of Honor, which is separated from the street by high walls and surrounded on the other three sides by the wings of the Hotel. The exterior of the flamboyant Gothic building includes many symbols of the Abbot of Cluny’s power, from the crenelated walls to the carved Burgundian grapes. The scallop-shells on the facade symbolize the great Camino de Santiago’s pilgrimage route, which once began just around the corner and was overseen by the Abbey of Cluny.
The most famous attraction of the Musee de Cluny is the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry, the most acclaimed of its kind. The six scenes, which cover the walls of the entire viewing room, bring to life romance in the age of chivalry. The tapestry was designed by French artisans and woven in 1485-1500 in Flanders. It was discovered in 1841 by Prosper Merimee in Boussac Castle and acquired by the museum in 1882. Each of the six scenes includes a beautiful lady, a unicorn and a lion. The animals wear heraldry that identifies the sponsor of the work as Jean Le Viste, a powerful nobleman close to King Charles VII (1422-61). The backgrounds are filled with woodland creatures, plants and flowers, creating an enchanted landscape.
Five of the scenes illustrated the five senses; sight, touch, taste, smell and sound. The sixth scene belongs either at the beginning or the end of the series, and is especially beautiful and intriguing. It is labeled with a banner reading, “to my only desire” and shows the lady placing a necklace in a case held by a servant.
The museum has two exhibition levels above the Roman baths. The ground floor contains the Tapestry of St. Peter; alabaster plaques from Nottingham; stained glass; the gate of Pierre de Montreuil; and sculptures from Notre Dome Cathedral. The first floor has the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries; golden Visigoth crowns; choir stalls from Beauvais; the Book of Hours; and the tapestry legend of St. Stephen.
The online collections cover Antiquity to the early Middle Ages; the Romanesque world; Gothic sculpture; paintings, miniatures and stained glass; goldsmith’s work and ivory; tapestries, fabrics and embroideries; everyday life; and loans.
The king’s gallery of statues originally beheaded during the revolution by the citizenry; they were mistaken as statues of royalty, but were the apostles; buried in the basement of the Banque de France, and rediscovered about 15 years ago.
Stall support: Pig Playing the Organ; Beauvais, 15th century
This support is the underside of a stall leaf for monks to surreptitiously lean on during services while maintaining the appearance of standing straight. Part of a series of carvings displaying observations from daily life, the sculptor’s imagination in this clownish series exemplifies his wit.
Host mold: France, second half of the 13th century
Metal molds have been in use to produce the hosts needed for the Eucharist since the 9th century. They made of two plates fitted to pliers-like articulated stems. More common were rectangular plates that allowed cooking many hosts at a time. The most beautiful molds are engraved with a lightly embossed design. On one surface of this mold, Christ amidst his twelve apostles, reveals his wounds; on the other, Christ delivering a benediction, framed by scenes of his life.
Stained glass chess game
The game of chess as a metaphor for the ritual of love permeated the culture of the late Middle Ages, both in literature and in the visual arts. The museum collection contains the most attractive example of this fad in a 15th century stained glass work. This ancient, secular stained glass piece shows the art of living as a cultivated elite of the day. The players wear elegant clothing and extravagant headpieces, as was fashionable in the 15th century. The lady is draped in a long gown edged in fur. The top of her forehead is shaved, in the manner of elegant ladies at the beginning of the 15th century, and her bicornate hairstyle was known as “split bread”. Her partner’s headgear is a magnificent chaperon that forms a sort of turban on his head. Grisaille and silver stain, two techniques marking the preference for painting on glass, this remarkable workmanship has made it one of the best examples of mid-15th century art in Lyon.
The gold rose in the Cluny museum is the oldest in conservation. Gold roses are noted in records dating back to the 11th century. Hundreds of gold roses created in the Middle Ages as symbols of favor, only three have survived the march of time. The gold rose ceremony has remained virtually unchanged through the centuries. Every year on the fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday, the Pope would offer a gold rose to an important figure whose faith he wanted to proclaim. This rose is identified by the recipient’s arms, which are added to the foot of the pierce. Pope John XXII gave it to Rodophe III of Nidau, Count of Neuchatel. The count had supported the Pope in his terrible battle against emperor Louis of Bavaria. In addition, the papal books, well preserved from the period when the pontiff resided at Avignon, identify the goldsmith commissioned for this work. Minucchio is one of many Sienia artists who turned 14th century Avignon into an artistic melting pot.
The Cluny Museum has a history of exhibitions that highlight the everyday life of the Middle Ages, continuing back to the Roman origins of the area. ‘The Bath and the Mirror’ from 2009, sponsored by the L’Oreal Corporation highlighted the reopening of the Frigidarium after restoration, demonstrating the importance of cosmetics and body care in antiquity, chemical analysis of ancient cosmetics was provided by the L’Oreal Laboratories.
Take a look at the street view on Google Maps of the Cluny Museum, great photos of the inner courtyard with 360 degree views. It truly is a wondrous place, you can almost hear the footfalls on the cobblestones.
I would like to thank Debra Eve at Later Bloomer for the suggestion of the Musee de Cluny. It was wonderful going to such an interesting museum with so much history.
I will return on Friday with a new Cabinet of Curiosities featuring Alexandre du Sommerard! Until then,