I have to admit that it has only been in the past few years that I’ve come to admire and appreciate medieval works. I used to pass right by the Middle Ages section of any museum, but thanks to a close friend who is a medieval scholar I grew what one might call a fondness (if not a passion) for tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, reliquaries, armor, statuary, and much more. The Cluny Museum has much to offer the medieval history buff or anyone found of gorgeous art and architecture. Plus, it is the place to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry of great renown.
On a sunny morning last June, I ventured out early to visit the Musée de Cluny or Musée National du Moyen Age. The biggest pieces in the Cluny Museum collection are Roman baths, exterior the two buildings that comprise the museum: the Hotel de Cluny (a former home to the abbots of Cluny c. late 15th century) and the Roman Baths of Lutèce (c. 2nd-3rd century AD). Both buildings transport you back in time. Walking into the late Gothic-style building of the Hotel de Cluny immediately brought to mind knights on armored horses and fair maidens. Running alongside of the castle-like building are the Roman Baths of Lutèce. When you enter the museum you can view them through a glass wall. When I was there they weren’t open for touring, but I’ve heard that they are now. Also, there are gardens off the museum that are quite pretty.
Some of the more notable works are:
- The heads of Kings of Judah from Notre Dame de Paris that removed from the church during the French Revolution and lay buried in a yard until the 1970s. (Heads date 1220-1230)
- Stained-glass window from Sainte-Chapelle, Samson and the Lion (1243-1248)
- Sculptures of the twelve apostles taken from Sainte-Chapelle during the French Revolution (1243-1248)
- Statue of Adam from interior of Notre Dame (1260)
- Casket with chivalric romance scenes (early 14th century)
- The Chapel of the Hotel de Cluny (late 15th century)
- The incomparable the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries from Flanders (c. 1500)
What I found to be the most awe-inspiring were the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn. The tapestries represent touch, sound, smell, sight, taste, and a sixth category—Mon seul désir (My only desire). The tapestries are at times playful with the lion looking like he knows a secret about the lady that he just might tell. The lady seems quite bewitched by the unicorn. In the sixth panel, it is unclear what her desire is—the jewels that are being presented to her? The unicorn? A lover who we cannot see? Regardless of the meaning, I got wrapped up staring at the tapestries with their golden threads glistening. The vibrancy of the colors surprised me and the detail of the scenes make one forget that they are looking at cloth and instead imagine that they are looking at a photograph. In all, the museum is filled with treasures and I highly recommend a visit there the next time that you are in Paris.
When going to Paris, I recommend purchasing the Museum Pass. Although it is pricey, it can easily pay for itself if you are planning to visit a few of the major monuments/museums. With the museum pass you can skip the ticket-buying lines and go right in. The pass is good for 2, 4, or 6 days. I recommend planning to visit the sites that aren’t covered by the pass (like the Eiffel Tour) and then clustering all the sites covered by the pass (Louvre, Versailles, Arc de Triomphe, Napoleon’s Tomb, etc.) in a set amount of days. You might find that you end up visiting museums that you wouldn’t have paid the admission for, like the Musée de Cluny, since they are already covered by your pass.
Location: the Musée de Cluny is located in the Latin Quarter, Paris (5th arrondissement) at 6 place Paul Painlevé