Last visit June 2013
We were staying right around the corner from the Musee de Cluny and as we had Museum Passes I figured we would stop to see the highlight of the museum, the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, a delightful series of 6 tapestries, 1 for each of the senses and the last called "A Mon Seul Desir". Unfortunately they are currently off display until November 2013 while the museum undergoes renovation, they are currently in Toyko and will then be sent to Osaka.
Included on the museum pass, an excellent place to buy the pass BTW as this museum was never crowded.
Such is the depth of Parisian culture that should you be brave enough ever to start writing up your Paris tips on VT, you'll find yourself having to distinguish your 'must see art museum' from your 'must see museum museum' ... sigh ... So, for what it's worth, here is my top tip for Paris' 'must see museum museum'.
I should prefix this by saying that I am evangelical everything about Gothic bar the black nail varnish, body piercings and studded dog collars, so this was always going to be an surefire winner in my book. Museum about the Middle Ages ... tick. Housed in an ancient building that started life as a series of 3rd century Roman baths and was transformed into a medieval monastic building ... tick. Situated in one of the oldest and most atmospheric parts of Paris ... tick. I wish I were as good at other games!!!
But I digress. The Musée de Cluny (or Musée du Moyen Age - confusingly it's the same place) is located in the former Parisian townhouse for the abbots of Cluny and is devoted to a stupendous collection of artifacts from the Middle Ages. And in all my travels, I've never come close to a collection as complete or of anywhere near such a standard - and that's not for lack of trying! The collection includes wood carvings, stone sculptures, tapestries, manuscripts, ecclestiastical paraphernalia and all of it of mindboggling quality - to put it into perspective, it makes the collection in New York's Cloisters museum look like second grade rejects - and that is still one of NYC's greatest museums.
There are so many things that are remarkable about this museum that it's hard to know where to start. Firstly, the building in whioch it is housed oozes antiquity, and sets the tone perfectly. In most other places, the building would be a major tourist attraction in itself, but here it is merely the setting for the jewels - literally and figuratively - displayed within.
And then there are the collections. Well, the big drawcard is obviously the Lady and the Unicorn series of tapestries, which are every bit as spectacular as you have been lead to believe - the archetypal medieval model of romantic love for the unattainable Lady Fair. And the ivory carvings. And the gorgeously illustrated manuscripts. And the exquisite but ridiculously ornate altarware bought with collections from an impoverished peasantry in expectation of eternal redemption. Each piece echoing a heritage close enough to resonate with the European psyche but distant enough from our current beliefs and priorities to make us question our contemporary takes on society, culture and religion ... exactly the sort of uncomfortable stuff that museums should challenge us with.
I don't have either the space or stamina to explain why you should go ... only to encourage you that you shouldn't dream of missing it, regardless of age, creed, colour or education. To sum it up, I was once lucky enough to visit the museum in the late morning and noticed by chance that there was a free lunchtime concert of medieval music played on authentic instruments from the Middle Ages. When the musicians arrived, they were brandishing objects so outlandish that I hardly knew whether they were weapons, agricultural implements or musical instruments - let alone which end they should blow, pluck or strike! Turns out that these were professional (orchestral) musicians who just played these instruments for recreational purposes every so often, and the ensuing hour was literally spellbinding - music reaching across from across the ages played in a manner that was long forgotten. I have never heard a longer standing ovation - and in the travel experiences of nearly half a century, this stands out as one of the handful of the most memorable.
However, on a smugly - adoptive - German note, I have yet to discover a Tilman Reimenschneider sculpture - the foremost wood carver of the High Gothic era - in the collection. Please let me know if I'm wrong so that I can go and pay homage (and address the oversight)!
The most famous and most intriguing exhibit in the National Museum of the Middle Ages is called “La Dame à la licorne”. This exhibit consists of six large tapestries that are on display in a special rounded room with subdued light.
Five of these tapestries show the five senses; Taste, Sight, Touch, Smell and Hearing, all illustrated by a mysterious lady with a unicorn on her right and a lion on her left.
The sixth tapestry (or is it the first?) is larger and shows the lady in a tent which is labeled “A mon seul désir”, meaning something like “To my only desire”. But what is her only desire? We don’t know. Is it something religious? Or something amorous? (She doesn’t look particularly amorous, but you never know. Maybe she’s smoldering.) She seems to be putting a necklace into a box that her servant is holding. (Renouncing worldly pleasures?) Or perhaps taking it out? (Embracing worldly pleasures?)
It must have taken years to weave these tapestries, following exact sketches that were sent from Paris. So nothing is shown just by accident or on whim.
Second photo: This is the tapestry about the sense of sight. Here it is the unicorn who is seeing something, namely its reflection in the mirror the lady is holding. This is obviously a friendly and docile unicorn, since it has its front paws on the lady’s lap. You can’t really tell from my photo, but the lion also looks very friendly in a bemused sort of way.
The lion is holding a pole with something attached to the top. At first glance I thought the lion had a wind sock or wind cone at the top of the pole, like the ones you see at small airports to show the wind direction, but of course that’s silly because they didn’t have airports in the Middle Ages, not even small ones. What the lion really has is a flag at the top of the pole, and the design is said to be the coat of arms of Jean Le Viste, the man who commissioned and paid for the six tapestries. In some of the tapestries the animals also wear armor with this same design on it.
Third photo: In this dark photo you can get an idea of how the tapestries are displayed on the wall of the rounded room, with lots of people sitting and observing them. When your eyes get accustomed to the subdued light you can easily take in the details (in the room, not from the photo).
Next review from January 2012: The medieval Louvre
The National Museum of the Middle Ages is justly famous for its many medieval tapestries on the walls. These were made of wool and silk, woven by hand and contain amazing amounts of detail.
This style of tapestries is called mille-fleurs meaning a thousand flowers. I haven’t counted the flowers in this tapestry (first photo), but I think there might really be a thousand of them, along with five elegantly dressed people and numerous birds.
To learn more about medieval tapestries, please have a look at the many reviews on this subject by VirtualTourist member breughel, who has described tapestries on display in Paris, Krakow, Toulouse, Beaune and Brussels, among other places.
Second photo: Here we have a gentleman on horseback, two ladies on another horse, numerous finely dressed servants on foot, some children and dogs, some castles in the background – the longer you look, the more you find.
Third photo: This tapestry is the last in a series about upper class life in the Middle Ages, showing the funeral of the local ruler, surrounded by mourners and with angels overhead.
Next review from January 2012: The Lady and the Unicorn
NEW: There is a special exhibition called "LARMES D'ALBÂTRE - Les pleurants du tombeau de Jean sans Peur duc de Bourgogne" from 27/02 til 3/06/2013. These are remarkable alabaster statues from the tombs in the Musée des Beaux Arts de Dijon, presently under renovation.
You can see my reviews with photos at Tomb of Philip the Bold and Tomb of John the Fearless in Dijon.
The National Museum of the Middle Ages is rich in sculptures and architectural decorations from a large number of Parisian monuments, among which Notre Dame, and possesses beautiful collections of medieval enamelling and goldsmithing.
What I liked very much were the medieval wooden sculptures. These, often religious, sculptures are very different from the classical style inspired by the Greco-Roman sculptures.
The expression of the faces, the physiognomy of these statues often stretched in height deviate from the classical aesthetic rules. These medieval sculptures show a mystic personality.
Very impressive are a "St John" from Tuscany around 1220 (photo 2), a Christ from Auvergne 12th c. (photo 3), a "Marie Madeleine" from Brussels around 1500 (photo 4) and the strange statue of "St Florian", an officer of the Roman army, patron saint of Austria (15th c.) and also patron of the firefighters (photo 1). The cross of St. Florian is widely used by fire services to form their emblem, also in the USA.
In Berlin's Bode Museum I recently met another, this time, giant statue of St Florian "Bode Museum - Sculpture Collection"
I mentioned these in my Musée de Cluny tip review it's such an important exhibit that it deserves a page of its own. This rare and lovely set of six tapestries is thought to have been created sometime near the end of the 15th century. Who commissioned them and why isn't certain but based on a coat of arms present in each of them, it was likely a member of the Le Viste family of Lyon. This would explain the presence of the lion, with the unicorn representing the family name. It was a medieval symbol for swiftness: "viste" in old French. Five of the hangings are visual allegories of the five senses, and it's not difficult to figure out which is which.
...holds a mirror that reflects the face of her unicorn: sight
...plays a small organ, helped by a handmaiden: hearing/sound
...weaves a garland of flowers from a basket held by a servant: smell
...selects a sweet from a bowl: taste
...gently strokes the unicorn's horn: touch
The sixth tapestry is a bit of a mystery but a brochure from the museum shop offers several different interpretations. In this one, our lady is enclosed in a blue pavilion emblazoned with the words "A mon sevl desir": my only desire. The enclosure could be symbolic of the separation of sacred from profane, or earthy from heavenly. I can also easily imagine it as enclosing purity of the heart - and the heart as a sixth sense is indeed one of the most possible allegories.
The lady has taken off her costly necklace and is placing it into a casket of jewels held by her handmaiden. Is she renouncing worldly vanities for a more austere and spiritual life? Or is she telling us that true love is more valuable than material riches? You be the judge. I did find it interesting that this lady's hair has a rather ragged and shorn appearance compared to the careful coifs or long, flowing locks of the others.
The pieces are displayed in a very dimly lit room to preserve their colors. Photography is allowed but no flash so they're a bit difficult to capture on film.
This is an absolute jewel of a museum and one of the highlights of Paris. Musée de Cluny /Musée National du Moyen Âge is a 15th-century manse of medieval treasures adjacent to Roman-era thermal baths dating to when Paris was known as Lutetia. Unfortunately the baths were undergoing work so we could only admire from the sidewalk the portion visible behind a fence. No matter; the collection more than made up for an unexpected snag.
Some of our favorites were:
• Six 15th-century "Lady and the Unicorn" (Dame à la Licorne) tapestries: stars of the show
• Brilliant 12th and 13th-century stained glass from some of France's famous landmarks such as Saint Denis and Sainte-Chapelle
• Fragments of very old sculptures torn from Notre Dame during the French Revolution
• Tiny, amazingly detailed ivory decorative panels
• Beautifully carved altarpieces and misericords
• Gorgeous statuary in a myriad of mediums
With some small exceptions the entire collection is fascinating and the impressive architecture and gardens of Hôtel de Cluny itself creates the perfect backdrop for these beautiful displays. Best of all? It wasn't as overrun with humans as the Louvre and Musée d'Orsay.
The museum has a very good website with background on the baths, mansion, gardens and the collection. It also has maps of the floor plan and visitor guides which can be downloaded before you go. If you have a Paris Museum Pass, just walk in and ask for an audioguide. If you don't have a pass, see the website for current prices (audio guides are included). Under 26 and an EU citizen? Lucky you - entrance is free!
Open every day except Tuesday, from 9:15 to 5:45
Desk closes at 5:15
Closed 1 January, 1 May and 25 December.
Great deal: entrance to the museum is free (1€ for audioguides) for all on the 1st Sunday of the month.
The National Museum of the Middle Ages is reputed for its magnificent collection of tapestries.
The so called "Mille fleurs" thousand flowers tapestries are typical of the 15th c. and owe their name to the multitude of flowers and blooming branches spread over them. This is a background on which persons and animals are represented. The most sumptuous examples of these "mille fleurs" tapestries are the six "Lady with the Unicorn - Dame à la licorne " tapestries in this museum of the former Cluny Abbey hotel.
The name Cluny comes from the famous Abbey de Cluny in Burgundy to which belonged this Parisian abbey residence.
"La Dame à la Licorne" is the title of a series of six Flemish (Brussels?) tapestries from around 1490, made of wool and silk, often considered as one of the greatest works of art of the Middle Ages. The cartons were made in Paris. The harmony of the range of colours is exceptional as well as their iconography and the fact that they always remained together.
These 6 tapestries of about 3 x 4 m are on display in a special very dark circular room of the museum
Five of these tapestries illustrate each of the five senses : taste, hearing, sight, smell and touch. In each there is the Lady with the unicorn, a lion, other animals, a maidservant.
The sixth tapestry, wider than the others, shows the lady standing in front of a tent which reads "A Mon Seul Désir - To My Only Desire".
There are various interpretations, the meaning of this sixth piece remains mysterious.
These six tapestries were discovered in 1841 by the French author Prosper Mérimée in the castle of Boussac. They were probably manufactured for Jean Le Viste, a personage close to King Charles VII.
As there is some mystery about this "Dame à la Licorne", books were written about these allegoric tapestries, recently by Tracy Chevalier author of the book "Girl with the pearl earring".
There are other beautiful tapestries such as the "Seigniorial Life", the "Grape Harvest", "The Liberal Arts" etc all of Flanders begin 16th c. See my other tip
"For tapestry lovers"
Open: each day 9.15 h - 17.45 h. Closed on Tuesday and 1/01,1/05 & 25/12.
Price (2013): 8 €, reduced 6 €. Free 26 yr from EU.
One of my preconceptions about medieval art was that all the people looked the same, with no individual traits or characteristics. But this is not always true, certainly not in this woodcarving of The Kiss of Judas, made in Brabant around the year 1500. Here each apostle is an individual. Each one looks different.
There are numerous woodcarvings in the museum, as well as pieces of antique furniture made of wood. A number of these wooden objects have ominous little holes in them, indicating the presence of wood worms. But presumably these have been treated so that the wood worms are now dead and only the little holes remain.
Next review from January 2012: A thousand flowers
This museum itself is historical, since it was founded in 1843. The building is the house of the Cluny Abbots, built in the late fifteenth century on the site of the Gallo-Roman baths from the first to third centuries.
Parts of the original Gallo-Roman baths are still (or again) visible, so when you go down some steps you are suddenly dropped from the Middle Ages back into Roman times, more than a millennium earlier.
Second photo: Excavations and building projects in the nineteenth century turned up numerous medieval statues, often without heads, since in some phases of French history it was the custom to behead the statues of people they no longer liked, such as kings or bishops.
Third photo: But the heads were also found and brought to the museum.
Fourth photo: In a temporary exhibition in 2012 the National Museum of the Middle Ages was displaying this intricately carved guiterne from the 14th-century. The guiterne was an ancestor of the guitar, but this one was transformed into a violin in the 16th century, which is why it looks like a mixture of both.
Fifth photo: The National Museum of the Middle Ages in Cluny Abbey sometimes offers concerts of medieval music, but the one I wanted to attend in 2006 was unfortunately cancelled because of the illness of one of the musicians.
Next review from January 2012: Woodcarvings in the Cluny museum
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