When it comes to choosing museums to visit in Paris, clearly there is an extensive list from which to choose. Personally, my favorite of them all (thus far) is the Musée de Cluny (officially known as the Musée National du Moyan Âge, or National Museum of the Middle Ages). Although it stands smack in the middle of the city, a sprawling complex on the corner of Boulevard Saint Michel and Boulevard Saint Germain, it tends to be relatively overlooked by visitors and is therefore a great candidate for (Free) First Sunday viewing.
The museum itself is architecturally divided into two parts. The permanent art collection is housed in the palace that initially was constructed in the 1300s for the abbots of Cluny. The visiting expositions are usually displayed in the soaring “Frigidarium”, the spacious remains of the Thermes de Cluny, an ancient Roman bath that first occupied this plot of land. Not only does the museum house an extensive and extremely well curated collection of medieval art, but it is also a fantastic opportunity to explore both the ancient baths and the palace, which are also very well preserved.
I have to admit that I am biased when it comes to my appreciation for the Cluny collection. In addition to my training in science, I also hold a degree in medieval history (yeah, I am not the most decisive person around). The reasons why are extensive and fun to discuss over a beer, and it does mean that I have boundless enthusiasm when it comes to looking at illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, tarnished reliquaries and broadswords. I am truly in my geeked-out element here – bring on another Madonna and Child triptych, I can take it!
One of my favorite stories about the museum involves this collection of heads (and the corresponding decapitated statues across the courtyard).
From the late 1200s, onwards, under the balustrade of the west façade of the Notre Dame Cathedral stands “The Gallery of Kings”, a row of larger-than-life statues representing the Kings of Judah, the ancestors of Jesus, looking down on the crowds as they enter the church. During the revolution, everyone was guillotine happy, particularly when it came to cutting off royal power (so to speak). Within this population there appears to have been some confusion – these statues were apparently thought to be representations of the French monarchy, rather than the biblical forefathers as originally intended. In order to remove any semblance of royal power from the symbols of the city, the façade was scaled, statues torn down and then beheaded and tossed into a mass statuary grave – just to be sure everyone got the point. The Cluny now houses some of the remnants of these victims of mistaken identity and mob rule.
The museum’s most famous piece is the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. These six tapestries are considered by many to be the greatest works of art of the European middle ages. Five of the tapestries represent one of each of the five senses (guess the one above!) and the meaning behind the sixth is still not agreed upon, but thought to represent some combination of love and understanding. The curators of the museum have built a special viewing room that has low light and is temperature controlled for optimal preservation. It is a special place to sit and imagine the years of weaving that went into each piece, to experience how saturated the colors remain after several centuries and to walk up and look at them so closely that you really can examine each stitch. They are stunning (plus, each one has a monkey and I love monkeys).
The last time I visited the Cluny, on a First Sunday several months ago, they were featuring a special exhibit, “L’Epée: Usages, mythes et symbols”, about swords, their history, use and symbolism. Housed in the Frigidarium, the visiting exhibition took our breath away – they had the swords of famous warrior Roland, as well as that of Joan of Arc. The sword pictured above was that used in the ceremony to crown new kings of France in the middle ages, complete with bejeweled scabbard. There were illustrated manuscripts demonstrating fencing and fighting techniques and, somewhat excessively, a skull showing the after-effects of a life threatening sword blow. Most amusingly was the looping video of the ‘Black Knight’ scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, presented as a representation of the “sword and modern culture” – seriously.
Unlike many of the other big name museums of Paris, the Cluny is relatively focused, small and easy to take in on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Between the history of the buildings themselves and the extent and quality of their collection, I would highly recommend adding it to anyone’s list of things to see when visiting Paris – the Musée de Cluny does an amazing job shining a light on France (and the rest of Europe) during what we mistakenly think of as “The Dark Ages”.
*”from the archives” will be an ongoing set of posts in the coming weeks that show what I was up to when I was not blogging here over the past several months – I never stopped collecting images and stories for the blog, and I am very happy to have the chance to share them now – better late than never, right?