Sorry the photos do not always show the objects described in the text.
The chapel of the Musée de Cluny
One of my favorite museums in Paris is the Musée de Cluny, which houses a treasure trove of medieval art. Converted in 1843 to a museum, it is situated on the site of the former baths of Lutetia, a Gallo-Roman site. At one time, it was also home to abbots of Cluny.
The baths of Lutetia are situated on three levels. They were most likely constructed in late 1 AD and served this function for 200 years. In 1862, they were recognized as a historical monument. The townhouse that once was the residence of the abbots is another architectural delight. The huge inner courtyard includes an external spiral staircase. The facades are adorned with many Gothic sculptures. The decoration of an oriel amazes, too. Renaissance and Gothic art features prominently there.
The museum isn’t only a showcase for medieval art. I also found Byzantine and Romanesque artifacts as well as metalwork and enamelware made in Limoges workshops. These included crosses, altarpieces and reliquaries, such as the reliquary of the murdered archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett (1170). The gold votive crowns from Visigoth Spain hailed from the seventh century and served as prime examples of early Western art.
However, what fascinated me the most was the Gothic art. I loved the stained glass windows from Sainte Chapelle, a must for me every time I visited Paris. These windows dated from the middle of the 13th century. Three of the Apostle statues from Sainte-Chapelle were also on display. I loved the detailed drapery of the religious figures.
I also saw the Virgin and Child, dating from 1240 to 1250, carved out of elephant ivory with the detailed folds of drapery on both figures. The Virgin was in the midst of making a gesture with one hand. Her hand looked as though it was in motion. The other hand held onto Jesus so gently, so lovingly. The smile on Jesus’ face was so bright, cheerful and contagious.
The objects from 15th century France tended to be morbid in nature. Indeed, even pictures of decaying corpses were on display. These figures were mostly comprised of reliquaries, statues, small altarpieces and stained glass.
One unique artifact was a mask of a recumbent effigy from Tournai about 1400. I could see aging features on the face, particularly in the forehead. A winged vase was covered in brown and blue decoration on a white background and had a dynamic flair. Coats-of-arms adorned the central part of the vase. It hailed from Valencia, dating from 1465 to 1469.
However, my favorite items in the museum were the six panels of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, in which the unicorn and a lady of noble stature were the protagonists. The six tapestries were created in Flanders around 1500 from wool and silk. They are considered some of the premiere works of art made during the Middle Ages. Five of the six panels evoked the senses while the meaning of the sixth one remains a mystery.
In the sixth tapestry, a unicorn standing on two legs and a lion flanked the lady and her servant, a tent and trees behind them. In front of the tent, I saw French words that could be translated as “love desires only the beauty of the soul.” In the pictorial narrative, the servant was holding an open chest while the smiling lady put a necklace that she was wearing in the other tapestries into the chest. It was notable that the lady is smiling; in the other five tapestries, she was not. The background was made up of flowers and animals. The tapestry could have a spiritual or moral theme or could stand for love and understanding.
Other tapestries on display that astounded me included three scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary (1499) and the Tapestry of Saint Stephen (1500). The Grape Harvest tapestry, hailing from the Netherlands in the 16th century, showed figures with detailed clothing making precise gestures as some picked grapes and other pressed them. I recalled all the amazing tapestries I had seen in the Vatican Museums while I stared, in awe, at the many tapestries in the Cluny Museum.
I also loved the altarpieces and triptychs. The triptych of The Mass of Saint Gregory hailed from Westphalia in the late 15th century. It depicts the Pope seeing the apparition of Christ. The Presentation in the Temple is a triptych made in France during the third quarter of the 15th century. I liked the child’s wooden horse and the Gothic vaulting of the temple. The Life or the Virgin Mary was a gem of painted terracotta with much detail, created by Arnt von Zwolle in 1483. The Altarpiece of the Passion came from the Netherlands and Champagne in the early 16th century. Those are just a few examples.
I left the museum with a much more poignant perspective on medieval art. I can’t wait to go back there someday – hopefully, someday soon. . . .
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.