Museum Visit: The Cluny

The Cluny Museum. Slip into some chainmail and explore the medieval past

Occasionally, the Experienced Travelers stay out of cafés long enough to visit a museum.  Probably not as often as we should, but there are 153 museums and over 7,000 cafes in Paris, so you see the challenge.

I was on my own one afternoon when Melinda suffered with a funny tummy.  (But not to worry – Nurse made a long-distance diagnosis (stop the Chantrix) that put Melinda back in her wedgie shoes by evening. Nurse is a magnificent diagnostician, even from Command Central across the Atlantic.)

I admired the gothic spires of the Hôtel de Cluny and decided to refresh my knowledge of France’s medieval past.  Known as the Musée National du Moyen Age, “the Cluny” holds a premier collection of religious sculpture, stained glass, art and artifacts from the Middle Ages – in particular the famous 15th century Unicorn tapestries and original statues from Cathedral facades.  And if the 11th century isn’t early enough, there are Roman baths on the grounds – Caesar’s idea of a spa weekend.

Woe be unto those that pull dusting duty

The Cluny is a world away from the tourists and errant water bottles that crowd the larger museums. The dark, quiet interior of the Hôtel is perfect for the collection.  I could overhear a concert of medieval music in the chapel that put me right in the mood for chivalrous knights, Abelard and Héloïse and chanting monks singing the Divine Offices.

You have to admire a man who would depend on this to deflect an oncoming lance. Tim and Victor-this is *so* you.

The lives of medieval Parisians were hardscrabble and God-fearing. Royalty on the right bank, the clergy of Notre Dame on the island, and upstart Sorbonne intellectuals on the left bank. Since it’s my fantasy, I opted for the royal court, insuring ET creature comforts like beds, fires and chamber pots.  With a tunic, an embroidered lace bodice and a fetching fur mantle I’d be ready for any social occasion or Anglo-Saxon invasion.

A beautiful 14th century depiction of the Holy family and the Presentation at the Temple. I love the gentle faces and swaddling cloth.

The Cluny holdings include religious art, beautifully rendered by anonymous stone masons, artists and mid-level monks.  Medieval Frenchmen – devout and largely illiterate – relied on these exquisite works for visual tutorials in their Faith.

Madonna and child carved from wood. He's a rather mature-looking baby who slightly resembles Barak Obama.

What does it say about me that I pondered not the existence of God, but whether things would “go” in the living room?  How many of the Unicorn Tapestries would fit on the wall behind the chair? (and do I have to change the rug…)  What would Nurse think of those gold reliquaries on the mantle?

We have just the right corner for this 13th century gold chasse from Limoges.

It was the Knights Templar meets HGTV and I was on the path to accessorized eternal damnation, taking Nurse down with me by association.

Add an uplight and a fern - instant drama

Afterward, I sat in the beautiful gardens surrounding the museum to contemplate my near-heresy. (after all, I didn’t *actually* redecorate…)  I must purify by getting some medieval stricture into my daily life before I’m damned.

Self-portrait taken before I realized I was damned.

Maybe I could linger at a table in the Café Flore since it’s built over the grounds of the famous Abbey of St.-Germain.  Or delicious cheese might earn time off from purgatory if it’s made using the methods that artisans practiced centuries ago.   I must save my soul by noshing on French bread and wine and renouncing my spurious past.

As I considered my redemption over a glass of wine, I wondered what might have been the life of a medieval ET?  A religious pilgrim on the road to Compastella atoning for all those café stops? A troubadour in the countryside singing epic tales of heroes and villains? Or an itinerant seller of early Hermes scarves and Kelly bags going from village to farm?

A medieval guardian angel showing an errant ET the path to righteousness.

Maybe just a penitent novice, earnestly painting an Annunciation to redecorate the Mother Abbesses’ private chapel.  (anything to avoid the harvest.  Medieval moi is no fool)

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14 Responses to “Museum Visit: The Cluny”

  1. tahoetTim Dineen Says:

    The chain mail is so a thinner moi… 🙂 But I do understand the temptation of KT meets HGTV! How does one fit that 18′ tapestry on the 9′ wall? Will the reliquaries clash with grandma’s cut glass bowl and auntie’s brass slipper ashtrays?

    Of course, the ED (Experienced Decorator) knows that one doesn’t follow convention – one leads!

    • Julie Says:

      Well dear, just hang the tapestries if you have the walls to do it. Bigger question is how it will all meld with the Capodimonte… Thank goodness we have an ED overseeing things to prevent an embarassing decor faux pas. BTW I found a French cafe in Philly that was pretty good – it’s in Rittenhouse Square.

  2. Nurse Says:

    This post is the best ever. I would give it a dozen stars if I could figure out how. Next trip I want to go there and see what a medieval powder room looks like.

    • Julie Says:

      Thank you Nurse! I fear the medieval powder room would be out behind the shed, with nothing of the “room” about it…

  3. The Paris Blog: Paris, France Expat Tips & Resources »Blog Archive » Seriously Old Says:

    […] The Cluny Museum, or National Museum of the Middle Ages, holds a premier collection of religious sculpture, stained glass, art and artifacts from the Middle Ages – in particular the famous 15th century Unicorn tapestries and original statues from Cathedral facades. And if the 11th century isn’t early enough, there are Roman baths on the grounds – Caesar’s idea of a spa weekend. It is a world away from the tourists and errant water bottles that crowd the larger museums. The dark, quiet interior of the Hôtel is perfect for the collection. I could overhear a concert of medieval music in the chapel that put me right in the mood for chivalrous knights, Abelard and Héloïse and chanting monks singing the Divine Offices. The lives of medieval Parisians were hardscrabble and God-fearing. Royalty on the right bank, the clergy of Notre Dame on the island, and upstart Sorbonne intellectuals on the left bank. Since it’s my fantasy, I opted for the royal court, insuring ET creature comforts like beds, fires and chamber pots. With a tunic, an embroidered lace bodice and a fetching fur mantle I’d be ready for any social occasion or Anglo-Saxon invasion. >more […]

  4. kathryn chmura Says:

    Love the guardian angel! Very fun read……..look forward to the nest ‘installment’

    • Julie Says:

      Kathryn thanks for commenting! There are guardian angels all throughout the Cluny, with their lovely cherub cheeks. I sense a trip to Paris brewing – you absolutely must go and practice your French! Hope you’re well and air-conditioned!

  5. American in Paris Says:

    Thank you for highlighting this wonderful museum!

    I encourage readers who have not visited it, to pair their Cluny visit with time in the *Objets d’art: Moyen Âge et Renaissance* section of the Louvre (Richelieu, 1st and 2nd fl.), where you will discover the other half of the French national medieval collection, including the sword used to crown French Kings starting in the 1100s, called the “Charlemagne” sword because it contains precious stones from an earlier royal dubbing sword from the Carolingian period.

    France’s National Muséum of the Renaissance, at Écouen (25 minutes north of the Gare du Nord, near the Basilica of Saint Denis but not on the metro line) is also well worth the visit.

    You do well to remind readers about physical realities of Paris in the Middle Ages. The Sorbonne was one of the two oldest European universities, second after Bologna, both founded nearly a century before Oxford. In the Middle Ages “University” meant Theology, and one is amazed to see even a short list of those eminent medieval theologians and philosophers who taught and studied here: in addition to Pierre Abelard (who was actually fired), Thomas Aquinas, Jean Buridan, WIlliam Ockham…and that’s only counting the 12th – 14th centuries.

    Best of all for me (…not counting the celebrated Unicorn Tapestries, alone worth the visit!!) is the building itself:

    The Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny was the Paris residence of Abbots of the great Burgundian monastery…and it is the only remaining non-church building from the entire extended period still standing in the Sorbonne quarter (attn: early Renaissance, XVe c.). It is truly thrilling to stand in this building, and its magnificent courtyard, then to walk around it, imagining what the world-renowned Saint Geneviève “Mountain” of the Sorbonne was like during the centuries when it was literally covered with similar buildings.

    And of course…the ancient Roman Bath underneath…

    Don’t forget to poke your head into the *Collège de France* on the Rue des Ecoles while you are in the very immediate neighborhood, it’s only 50 yards from the Cluny Museum. It took more than a century after the founding of François I’s “alternate university” during the Renaissance (the Valois King’s “pied du nez” to the priests of the Sorbonne!) to get a building actually built for the Collège des Lecteurs Royaux, founded by eminent humanist and royal librarian Guillaume Budé, first year of classes 1529-1530). But once they did — what a magnificent 17th c. building…and what an astonishing concept, as an institution. Perhaps another story for another post! 🙂

    • Julie Says:

      American in Paris thank you so much for the *excellent* information on the Cluny and Medieval Paris. Do please continue to share your thoughts on our posts! Are you based in Paris?

      • MATTHEW ROSE Says:

        Hey there, Julie and American in Paris, I wanted to invite you to a show I’m doing here in Paris (at a very very cool concept space in Montparnasse)… can you get me your email details so I can send you the info?

        Many thanks…

        Matthew Rose

      • Julie Says:

        Hi Matthew – I will just dream of attending your show, as I won’t be in Paris again for a few months.
        Best of luck!

  6. Seriously Old Says:

    […] and a fetching fur mantle I’d be ready for any social occasion or Anglo-Saxon invasion. >more Posted in Paris […]

  7. Mariana Says:

    Dear Julie,

    I’m a graphic designer from NYC, I was researching images from Musee de Cluny for a project I’m working on and came across you website. I’d like to ask for you permission to use the image of the ceilings of the Musee you had taken. We’ll be producing 30 copies of the brochure, and your name would be credited on the photograph.

    Please let me know if you have any questions.

    Best,

    Mariana Uchoa

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