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When all museums and monuments in Paris were open for free to celebrate French heritage day last September, I bypassed the long lines at more popular museums, and instead enjoyed a crowd-free browse through the collections of the Musee de Cluny.I know, September was a long time ago, but I wrote this post shortly after my visit, and it has been sleeping in my drafts folder ever since. I finally decided it’s time to do a little housecleaning and press “publish” on some of these posts.

I LOVE medieval art. I first discovered this fact during my High School art history class, and reinforced it with a ridiculously long research paper on stained glass during my freshman year of college. By the end of my career as a student, I had enough classes on european art that I narrowly missed counting it as a second major (and in hindsight, I don’t know why I didn’t just complete it). Since then, I’ve seldom had another opportunity to do in-depth study on the subject, but I still like to talk about it, look at it, and pretend I know anything.

The Cluny is a special museum. It’s housed between two unique buildings-the first being one of the city’s two surviving medieval homes, and the other being the remains of an ancient Roman bath that was unearthed on the site. Guests can happily wander through both structures as they please, taking in the art exhibits and enjoy the fitting architecture surrounding them. There is also a reconstructed medieval garden around the building, which is a perfect place to sit quietly and enjoy the atmosphere of Paris’ St Germain district (and perhaps eat the chocolates you just bought down the street at Patrick Roger, not that I know anything about that).

The museum has, as the unequivocal highlight of its collection, the tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn–reason enough to visit, even if you haven’t yet discovered in yourself a love of medieval art. These tapestries are displayed in a special room constructed just for them, and are among the most stunning works of art created in all of Europe during the Medieval period. Its a shame that so many people visit Paris without seeing them.

I didn’t take pictures myself because snapping images in a dark room seemed pointless, and using my flash to take a pictures of these priceless works seemed unnecessarily damaging. So, I’m back to stealing images from the internet.

Despite the fact these tapestries are quite famous even outside the circles of art admirers, I’d never before seen all 6 tapestries together. This is a shame considering that if you analyze them individually, you miss the overarching theme that is carried across—the exploration of the senses. The first five tapestries each concentrate on one of the five senses—for example, in the “taste” tapestry, the lady is seen taking candies from a dish, while the monkey nibbles a candy of his own at her feet. In the “Sight” tapestry, we find the lady and unicorn kneeling together, gazing into a mirror. And so the theme continues, until the sixth tapestry, which stands alone, its meaning somewhat more obscure. There, the lady is seen dropping her strand of pearls into a box held by her maid servant, while on the banner above her are the words, “À mon seul désir.” I’m not a scholar, but I disagree with the usual (and thoroughly unimaginative) suggestion that the 6th sense here is “love.”  In fact, I’m not sure the 6th tapestry depicts a sense at all…I’m more inclined to think it represents something a little more figurative that ties the other 5 tapestries together. Medieval theology was often inclined to teaching that submission our earthly desires can elicit sinful behavior, the way the joy of taste can lead to gluttony, or the gift of sight can make one vain. In the tapestries, the lady allows herself to appreciate the gifts of the senses, but in moderation; after getting her enjoyment she takes off the necklace she wears in the first 5 tapestries, and puts it away until next time. As suggested by the text, the senses she experiences are not really what her soul desires, although she is free to enjoy them as she likes, but instead she dedicates them to something even greater.  In the middle ages, this virtue of prudence formed the very basis of one’s path to salvation, the “mother virtue” to medieval Christians. Its not hard to see how perhaps the tapestries represent the careful and diligent control of one’s senses toward a higher purpose.

Just a thought.

ANYWAY I really didn’t mean to spend so much time analyzing the Lady, instead I really wanted to just highlight a few of the awesome pieces from the Cluny’s collection. Here’s a sampling:

This is a statue of Adam that was originally displayed on the facade of Notre Dame. Unfortunately the cathedral (and much of its original decoration) was torn apart during the French Revolution, but luckily some of the statues resurfaced and made their way to the Cluny. Many people seem to think of medieval art (and the medieval period in general) as a time when humans reverted to some retrogressive, primitive state, which I simply don’t believe is true. Adam’s poise is natural and his body realistic, and overall it shows a fine awareness of Greek and Roman sculpture. Speaking of which—keep your eye out for the Roman Column of Jupiter, which is currently considered the oldest piece of art in Paris.

Heads on display (these were also recovered from the ransacked Notre Dame). Some are still identifiable, but unfortunately some are too damaged now to put a definite name to.

One of the museum’s stunningly beautiful galleries. I love how everything is displayed together, a mix of different mediums all crowded together, and it’s easy to get up-close-and-personal with the works. This isn’t one of those museums where you have to stand 10 feet away and look through glass windows at everything. It’s real art, made by real people, and meant to be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone. And so it is.

Another tapestry, this one depicting the body of St Stephen being transported to Rome. If you’re multi-lingual, you can easily follow the story being told, but for the rest of us, there are helpful english-language info cards to help you along. I love how demons are portrayed in medieval art. From modern perspective, they’re almost comical.

A few of my favorites—too bad about the glare on the glass! I love medieval art for its expressiveness…to the point of being pure theatrics. Just look at their faces!

168And when was the last time you went to a museum with a ceiling like this?!

I loved the museum back in September when i was still new to Paris, and even after living there for 6 months and visiting some of the greatest museums the city has to offer, the little Cluny Museum is still among my favorites.

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