Along with the Galeries d’Anatomie Comparée et de Paléontologie, my favourite museum in Paris has to be the Musée National du Moyen Age – Thermes et Hôtel de Cluny, better known simply as the Musée de Cluny.
I enjoy visiting both of these for their respective collections, vast and varied, but also love the experience of entering such magnificent buildings, albeit from very different periods of history.
Both maintain that sober, impressive, rather intimidating atmosphere that museums used to share with churches and cathedrals.
Despite certain renovation work, both still allow you to explore without the distraction of all the screen gadgetry that aims to inform and educate but often seems to be a desperate measure to entertain and retain the attention of the digitally-addicted.
Maybe I sort of liked the time when museums were often thought to be rather musty, dusty and dull and you could literally just‘lose yourself’ in their galleries and your own thoughts.
The Musée de Cluny is situated on the Left Bank of the river Seine, in the quartier Latin of Paris. This part of the city, in the 5th arrondissement was named thus due to the language that was prevalent there until the end of the 18th century.
Indeed, there was a large concentration of Medieval schools and universities in this quarter, the most famous of these being the Université de Paris, often referred to as La Sorbonne.
The Musée de Cluny itself represents a curious combination of the Antique period and the Middle Ages. The gallo-roman baths of Lutetia from the end of the 1st century – Les Thermes du Nord/Cluny – are partly incorporated into what was the Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny. Although much of the antique baths was damaged and destroyed by successive Barbarian invasions, the frigidarium with its vaulted ceiling are still visible today, accommodating the museum exhibits.
As its name implies, the Hôtel de Cluny, was built to accommodate the abbots of the Benedictine abbey of Cluny from the Burgundy region of France at the end of the 15th century.
The land had been purchased for this purpose in 1330, but it was the period between 1485-1498 that saw the construction of the edifice we know today, under the orders of Jacques d’Amboise de Cluny.
Many other figures were to reside in this impressive palatial building, including Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII in the early 16th century. From the 17th century the Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny became a nunciature (a papal diplomatic mission) and at one stage housed the Cardinal Mazarin.
From the end of the 18th century, the Hôtel's status and state changed dramatically. Here was the period of The Revolution which changed the landscape of France in every possible sense. As the Ancien Régime was dramatically brought to an end from the pivotal date of 1789, all that hitherto symbolized its elitist structure of power and privilege was razed.
The institutions that had governed the French people through oppression and impoverishment were stripped down or were simply swept away in a tide of revolutionary force. Absolute monarchy, archaic feudal systems and the Catholic church were the principal targets of this purge. The Church and la noblesse lost property and possessions in the ensuing wave of desecration and destruction that sought to wipe out all iconographic forms and any trace of aristocratic privilege.
The Revolution, needless to say, had a devastating impact on art and architecture throughout France. Many, many edifices that we admire today bear the traces of the rage that overtook the populace, centuries before us. Empty niches and plinths, shattered tombs still leave gaping holes, architectural forms remain strangely truncated, whilst heads, limbs and symbolic artifacts are missing from numerous statues and reliefs. They attest to the cruel fate of the human forms that adorned churches and cathedrals, all victim to the same brutality used to amputate and decapitate flesh-and-blood counterparts. And yet, the iconoclastic scorn directed at the artistic expression and ostentation of the Church and nobility would have some rather unexpected results.
Much of the art taken from the royal collection was kept in the Muséum de la République; The Louvre. However, parallel to that, special dépots were set up to store the ‘new’ national treasure of a varied nature, all removed during the confiscation process. In 1790, the former 17th century rive gauche convent, Les Petits-Augustins, was given the task of housing the statues taken from religious foundations.
A young painter, Alexandre Lenoir, became the guardian of these spoils of war, but his position grew in stature, just as the nature of his collection expanded to incorporate paintings and objets d’art too.
Lenoir was instrumental in the safeguard of many royal tombs that were destined to destruction. However, he is better known for being the driving force behind the transformation of the depot at Les Petits-Augustins into the Musée des Monuments Français.
This museum was opened to the public in 1795, and focused largely on the history and chronology of French sculpture until its closure in 1816, during the Bourbon Restoration. Its establishment played a significant role in the history of museums and collections. It also had a lasting effect on the manner in which art, and especially the Gothic, would be perceived. More importantly here, the name Lenoir would be forever linked to the Hôtel de Cluny and the Thermes.
Indeed, during the Revolution years, the Thermes were used as a lapidary depot, whilst the former Hôtel was sold off as a national asset, duly divided up and rented out.
Ironically, it was this seemingly destructive measure that led to the hôtel’s salvation, at a period when very few of the original Medieval palaces would survive.
The subsequent use of a chapel as improvised storage space for a printer-bookseller’s presses seemed to highlight the hôtel’s fall from grace. However the individual who had made such an irreverent lease possible, a certain Alexandre Du Sommerard, would play the key role in the hôtel’s final resurrection as the museum we value in present times.
As chief counselor of the Court Audit (Cour des Comptes), Alexandre Du Sommerard was a man of importance and power. Indeed, his personal wealth and position enabled him to acquire the hôtel in the early 1830s.
Yet it was Du Sommerard's personal interest in collecting and classifying artifacts from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that would have the most impact on the hôtel’s fate and the reappraisal of pre-revolutionary art in general.
Occupying the second floor of the hôtel he built up his collection, with the same devotion as Alexandre Lenoir in the Musée des Monuments Français.
His collection was rather eclectic, but largely demonstrated his desire to surround himself in Medieval and Renaissance art. To a certain extent he created an idealized oasis in which aesthetics, Catholic piety and nationalistic pride were inextricably intertwined, far removed from the anarchic world beyond the hôtel’s walls.
However the Musée de Cluny itself was still to be created; it would be the sons of Lenoir and Du Sommerard who would lead its realization.
Following his father’s line of interest, Albert Lenoir, son of Alexandre, proposed the project to unify the Palais des Thermes and the Hôtel Cluny to create a historical museum during the Salon of 1833. This did not happen, but several years later, the city of Paris purchased the Thermes, otherwise destined to demolition, and indeed commissioned Albert Lenoir to carry out their restoration.
Meanwhile, the Hôtel benefited from the care of Alexandre Du Sommerard and his son, Edmond, who went on to curate his father’s vast collection following the latter’s death in 1842. More importantly still, the son had inherited his father’s drive for actively collecting art and his unswerving devotion to its conservation.
When the French State acquired the hotel and its collections in 1843, and the Ville de Paris handed over the Thermes de Cluny, Edmond Du Sommerard was made the official head of the subsequent museum – Le Musée des Thermes et de l’Hôtel de Cluny, thus realizing Albert Lenoir’s dream.
Today, of course, the renown of Hôtel de Cluny appears to be intrinsically linked to the fame of its ‘star’ exhibit, the 16th century tapestries of La Dame à la Licorne.
These allegorical pieces, rendered famous by Tracy Chevalier’s 2003 novel, The Lady and the Unicorn, seemed to have acquired a must-see importance akin to that of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Fortunately, this draws in the public to admire these marvellous works and to discover other great pieces in the process, but they may cause these to be somewhat overlooked. Well, on this particular post there is no danger of that, visually speaking at least, as I don't have any of my own photos of the La Dame à la Licorne, all photography being banned. So here's a link to admire them and inspire you to see them in the Musée de Cluny.
For all their popular acclaim, the works largely remain as enigmatic as ever, and as such lend themselves to varied interpretation, as much with respect to their ‘meaning’ as to their origins.
Chevalier paints a story around the latter; namely the Le Viste family who had initially commissioned the work. (Sssh… as a spiky aside, I should say, or rather shouldn’t say that as much as admire this author’s great talent for choosing truly remarkable themes for her works, I find her actual writing to be so disappointing and The Lady and the Unicorn was no exception, I’m afraid.).
The set of six tapestries is said to have been discovered by Prosper Mérimée, Inspecteur Général des Monuments Historiques, in the Creuse region of France in 1841. Mérimée, is in fact probably more famous today for his work as a novelist and playwright (and his failed romance with George Sand) than for his contribution to art history.
Mérimée's novella, Carmen, was indeed the basis of Bizet’s opera of the same name. Nevertheless he was inspecteur général until 1860, and consequently this led him to follow the progression of the Hôtel de Cluny to Musée and furthermore to align himself with the interests of Edmond du Sommerard. Indeed, both would co-write a book on military architecture in the late 1840s.
Having heard of these marvelous tapestries abandoned in a chateau, through George Sand no less, Mérimée was naturally concerned by their preservation. However, it would be Du Sommerard who finally acquired the tapestries in 1882, several years after the death of Mérimée.
The rich red background of the pieces, provided by the natural dye of the common madder root (rubia tinctorum) has maintained its hue to this day, attesting to the exceptional quality of the wool and the mastery of the Flemish craftsmanship. All this, of course, served to reflect the affluence and power of the artistic patrons – the Le Viste from Lyon.
Throughout the works, numerous references to the social standing of this wealthy family can be observed with greater or lesser ease. These go from the noble beasts that symbolize this worldly importance - the lion and the unicorn, respectively to the left and right of the dignified lady – to the heraldic coat of arms with the banners of three half-moons that these creatures bear or highlight.
The key figures of the tapestries are set in a sumptuous red background which brings out the vivid colour and great intricacy of the tiny mille-fleurs floral details that enhance the whole. All the botanical elements represented, from the flowering plants, trees bearing berries, nuts and fruit to the medicinal herbs, would have been familiar to the contemporary viewer of these works. In the Medieval period, all such herbaceous and woody plants had a practical function, but here they also perform aesthetic and symbolic ones.
Everything here reflects the refinement of the nobility and their spiritual aspirations and thus separates the high-born from the commoners. The sponsors of such works would never dirty their hands or sully their image with the earthy and earthly common vegetable. Likewise, the commonplace creatures that inhabit the tapestries – the fox, falcon, genet, rabbit, hunting and domestic dog, lamb and goat – all recreate habitual sights. However these ordinary animals are presented in an other-worldly domain of extraordinary harmony, and are set next to the more exotic beasts such as the monkey and parakeet.
The main focus of each tapestry is, of course, the central form of the oval carpet of flowers with a noble lady and her handmaiden, accompanied by the mythological figures of the lion and the unicorn. Adorned in attire that reflect her position, the lady occupies herself with a seemingly daily routine, but this toilette lends itself to various readings.
Some believe that the work presents a popular and recurrent theme in Medieval art and literature; the taming/seduction of the unicorn by a virgin. A fierce and wild beast, the unicorn was both a symbol of Christ and the animal embodiment of purity, grace and love. As such, the tapestries represent therapprochement of the Virgin Mary and Christ. However, others feel that the works depict the solitary, spiritual journey of the lady, as she renounces worldly pleasure, in the quest for absolute faith.
The first five tapestries of La Dame à la Licorne portray each of the corporeal senses of perception. We see a lady touching the unicorn’s legendary horn, allowing a parakeet to taste the sweetmeat offered to her by the handmaiden, preparing a wreath of flowers whilst a monkey smells one of her roses, producing harmonious sound as she plays music on an organ, holding a hand-mirror to enable the unicorn to see its reflection. These five pieces seem to lead from the ‘material’ to the more heavenly, and culminate in the sixth, which bears the inscription, ‘A mon seul désir’, where we see a lady in front of an ornate tent that bears the initials ‘A’ and ‘I’, receiving a jewellery box from her handmaiden. However, it is not clear if the lady is taking the jewels, possibly accepting a token of amour fin (between the enigmatic ‘A” and ‘I’?), or if she is replacing them, as she renounces worldly possessions.
Another possible meaning, which I think is the most plausible, is that the tapestries represent scenes from the first part of the allegorical text, Le Roman de la Rose, written by Guillaume de Lorris in 1237. In this Medieval study of la courtoisie and l’art d’aimer, we learn of the dream of a young man who enters the walled, courtly garden de Déduit (pleasure) – the locus amoenus. Here he encounters the object of his desire; the beautiful virgin, Rose. This maiden is represented by a rose that cannot be picked, and which is defended by a number of personified abstractions (Danger, Avarice, Jealousy, Shame being just a few…). This symbol of untainted love and virginal beauty can only be won by proving valour and worth through a succession of challenges set by Amour. In this manner, the written account, Le Roman de la Rose, mirrors the ennobling ritual of chivalrous deeds, carried out by all aspiring vassals as a sign of love and devotion to their lady, to satisfy the demands of l’amour courtois of Middle Age France.
In the tapestries, we do not simply see one lady, but different female figures, each of which corresponds to the allegorical Virtues that appear in Le Roman; namely Dame Oyseuse, Dame Liesce, Dame Biauté, Dame Cortoisie, Dame Jonesce, Dame Richece. Indeed, George Sand had mentioned eight tapestries in the initial collection found neglected in the Chateau Boussac, not merely six. Dame Largece and Dame Franchise were presumably portrayed on the two missing works…
Having undergone impressive restoration work in recent years, the set of tapestries is again exhibited in conditions ideal for their conservation, which do, of course, exclude the taking of photos.
This restoration was the first stage of an ambitious scheme to render the museum more accessible to all members of the public, by the modernization of the reception area, a new entrance and the installation of a lift. I do hope that the museum manages to keep its unique aura and atmosphere in the process.
Since the beginning of the millennium, the Musée de Cluny has benefited from other projects with the restoration of its stained glass collection – the largest in Europe – and the creation of a Medieval garden running alongside Boulevard Saint-Germain.
The Medival garden is divided into separate zones, cultivating the various plants and herbs beds which correspond to their respective functions. In the vegetable plot - le ménagier - grow the plants destined for culinary purposes; the garden ‘des simples’ yields medicinal herbs, whilst the hortus conclusus – the celestial garden - bears the noble plants and flowers that symbolize the virtues of the spiritual world and amour courtois.
Within the curious rooms, meandering corridors, vast halls and intricately vaulted chapels of the Musée de Cluny you can lose your way, but I love this aspect, especially when you find yourself faced with previously unnoticed exhibits or details of the building itself.
Many of my favourite pieces – sculpted combs and boxes - had been temporarily stored away to make room for a display when I last visited.
A good excuse for another visit, me thinks!