There are hundreds of museums and art galleries in Paris, from the grand and the great like the Louvre to the small and quirky like the Cluny Museum. Linda Mathieu takes a look at this petite but perfectly formed Musée…
Cluny Museum, Paris
When I first moved to Paris many years ago, one of my first visits was to the Musée national du Moyen Âge – Thermes et hôtel de Cluny, more commonly called the Cluny Museum. It was once the town house of the Abbots of Cluny and is an outstanding example of medieval architecture – just to see the outside of the building and its charming courtyard is a pleasure. It was built on the remains of Roman baths from the third century which can still be seen in the lower level. There are stained glass windows from Saint Chappelle, marvellous wooden sculptures and, a surprise to me, the heads of Judean kings from the front of Notre Dame. They were beheaded during the French Revolution and the remains were amazingly found in a Paris garden in 1977.
The main reason most people make a visit to the Cluny is to see the famous tapestries from the 16th century entitled “the Lady and the Unicorn” although I wondered why the lion always seen on the other side of the Lady wasn’t included in the title. The tapestries are said to be one of the greatest surviving artefacts of their kind from the middle Ages. They are sometimes called the “medieval Mona Lisa” since there is an air of mystery behind the art work. There are no records of who the Lady was, who designed and made the tapestries and, especially, what does it actually represent?
The tapestries were hung in a chateau before being moved to the Cluny, damaged by years of neglect, damp, nibbling rats and even subjected to having parts cut off to use as a rugs. The repairs are obvious when you are stand close to the hangings and look carefully. Each of the six separate tapestries depicts a blond woman with a unicorn to her left and a lion to her right. The red background of each tapestry is filled with exquisite and very detailed plants and trees and animals – monkeys, rabbits, dogs and many other species. They were woven in Flanders from wool and silk and the first five depict the five senses, taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch. The sixth tapestry is called “À Mon Seul Désir”, My Only Desire, and many have wondered what this means. It shows the Lady either putting away a necklace or perhaps taking it out of a box. No one can say for sure but you don’t have to know the precise explanation to enjoy looking at it.
Time and decades of dust had taken their toll on the colours and lining of the tapestries and a team of restorers spent months cleaning and replacing the missing linings and for two years the tapestries were hidden away whilst the restoration took place. They returned to the Cluny Museum at the end of 2013 and in the darkened room in which they hang, visitors can see the restored tapestries in all their colourful glory (though to my dismay, there are no benches to sit on). During the day, groups of school children visit, so, if you want to have the pleasure of looking and absorbing in peace – I recommend you visit after school hours or on the weekend.
The Cluny is a great museum to visit, smaller and more intimate (and not as exhausting) as the Louvre. There are audio guides in several languages, a pretty medieval styled garden and the gift shop is very good too with an excellent selection of books and souvenirs.
Address and practical details for the Cluny Museum Paris:
Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge, 6 place Paul Painlevé, 75005 Paris (5th Arr)
Métro Cluny-La Sorbonne / Saint-Michel / Odéon
Hours of opening: Daily except Tuesday, entrance is free on the first Sunday of each month.
See the Website for information and more details www.musee-moyenage.fr
Linda Mathieu, a native Texan, lives in France with her French husband. She was a Paris Tour Guide and is the author of Secrets of a Paris Tour Guide, available at www.amazon.com.