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Le Musée de Cluny, or the Cluny Museum, is the only museum in France dedicated to the Middle Ages. Thus, it is also known as the Museum of the Middle Ages or the Musée National du Moyen-Age. The Musée de Cluny is found in the charming Latin Quarter of Paris.
Since 2015 the Musée de Cluny has been under renovation with certain parts of the museum closed. The final phase of the renovation project saw the Musée de Cluny closed for two years. It reopened in May of 2022 and now, the Musée de Cluny is accessible to people with reduced mobility.
The Cluny Museum: Why Go?
If you love history and the Middle Ages, the Musée de Cluny or the Museum of the Middle Ages is the place to visit! The artefacts include stained glass relics, medieval statues, jewellery, artefacts from medieval daily life and the celebrated remains of the Gallo-Roman bathhouse and the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Plan on spending a couple of hours fully exploring this delightful museum.
I visited the Musée de Cluny as a twenty-year-old (many, many moons ago!) with my mother and for years I have held onto a memory of the exquisite Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. As soon as I saw them after decades, I knew why they had left an indelible impression.
Musée de Cluny: Significance Behind The Name
The Musée de Cluny built in 1485 is a fabulous example of medieval architecture in Paris. Just look at the turrets and the steeply pitched roof with dormers. The building was the town residence of the Abbots of Cluny, based in Cluny in eastern France. It was a good idea to be close to the royal court and the Sorbonne.
Later, Alexandre du Sommerard (the name of the street where the new entrance is found) moved in. Alexandre du Sommerard was passionate about the Middle Ages and acquired a vast collection of art and artefacts from this period. After his death in 1842, the French state took over the Hôtel de Cluny. It was du Sommerard’s collection that formed the basis of the museum’s early collection when it opened in 1843.
7 Best Reasons To Visit The Musée de Cluny
The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry Series
The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series was acquired by the Musée de Cluny in 1882 and is thought to have been created around 1500. Often referred to as the “Mona Lisa of the Middle Ages,” The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are some of the greatest surviving masterpieces of medieval European art.
As soon as you step into the room, you’ll understand why.
The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are large, with a red background and depict a young lady with her unicorn and lion, the coat of arms of the Le Viste family, and a bounty of flora and fauna.
The six large tapestries depict the five senses touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight. In each tapestry, the “Lady” is engaged in an action exemplifying the sense. She plays the organ in hearing and holds up a mirror to the unicorn in sight. It’s adorable seeing the unicorn’s reflection! Her actions are charming, familiar, and elegant.
And the sixth tapestry? Written across the tent are the words “À mon seul désir” (To my only desire). This tapestry alone has had historians searching for the meaning for centuries. Is it love? Is it free will? Stand before this tapestry and ponder whether this sixth sense is the heart.
These masterpieces were created in the millefleurs style (literally one thousand flowers) where the background of the tapestry is awash in small plants and flowers. Study the flowers. Find the familiar. Pansies, daffodils, and lily of the valley draw me in and make an immediate heart connection to the scenes. Find the oak trees, the faithful dogs, running rabbits, monkeys and the ever-present unicorn.
I love recognizing the familiar and falling into a trance imagining the stories behind each tapestry. Who is this young woman with her tamed unicorn? I love deciphering clues about the lifestyle more than 500 years ago. Who was the creative genius behind these depictions and who were the weavers?
Do these tapestries seem a little familiar to you? Harry Potter fans may recognize these tapestries as the ones hanging majestically in the Gryffindor common room. That lion, and the red and gold colours featured in the tapestries made for the perfect addition to the common room! Reproductions of The Lady and the Unicorn series were created for the set.
Musée de Cluny: The Ancient Gallo-Roman Thermal Baths
For some reason, I always have to pinch myself that Paris was formerly the ancient Gallo-Roman city of Lutetia. There is no better place to see the proof than standing in the frigidarium of the Gallo-Roman baths in the Musée de Cluny. The Thermes (baths) de Cluny built around 200 CE are among the largest such ancient remains in northern Europe. The frigidarium or the cold room has a vast vaulted ceiling rising to 14 metres (45.9 feet) with walls of limestone rubble stone interspersed with brick.
Note the lovely mosaic remnant of Cupid Riding a Dolphin and the stunning marble bathtub.
Spend some time admiring the Pillar of the Boatmen (Pilier des Nautes) dating from about 25 CE. It is unbelievable! The four blocks were found under Notre Dame in 1710 and depict both Roman and Gaulish deities. Look for the Latin inscriptions.
Cluny Museum: The Sculptures From Notre-Dame de Paris
Off with their heads!
The Cathedral of Notre Dame’s west facade featured The Gallery of Kings with 28 statues of the kings of Judah, considered to be the ancestors of the Virgin Mary. In 1793 during the French Revolution, revolutionaries mistook the kings of Judah for the kings of France and decapitated all 28 statues. Twenty-eight kings had their heads chopped off. And the heads disappeared.
The headquarters of a former bank located in the hôtel Moreau in the 9th arrondissement started their courtyard renovations. As they dug they made an amazing discovery. In fact, one of the most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century in Paris.
More than 300 treasured fragments from Notre-Dame de Paris including twenty-one heads from the Gallery of Kings (13th century) were uncovered and donated to the Musée de Cluny.
Room 5 in the Musée de Cluny is dedicated to sculptures from Notre-Dame de Paris. Don’t miss the elegant statue of Adam from 1260, the angels, and the headless statues of the twelve apostles clad in drapery with deep folds.
The Chapel Of The Hôtel de Cluny
I wasn’t expecting this glorious little chapel from the end of the 15th century to be part of the visit to the Musée de Cluny. It’s absolutely breathtaking.
The Chapel of the Hôtel de Cluny is a fine example of the Flamboyant Gothic style with its ribbed vaults. Stand and just gaze upwards! You’ll also discover 13 carved angels carrying instruments and Christ on the cross. On either side of the apse, are restored mural paintings from 1500.
Take your time. There are so many details to note in this remarkable chapel.
Still closed to the public at this stage is the spiral staircase in the Cluny Museum that leads from the chapel to the garden. It’s behind a stunning carved wooden door in the corner.
Votive Crowns From The Treasure Of Guarrazar
There are plenty of incredible jewels, jewellry, ivory carvings, and jewel-encrusted manuscipt covers throughout the collection of the Musée de Cluny. The golden rose from the treasury of the Basel Cathedral is remarkable as are these Votive Crowns.
These incredible gold crowns embedded with sapphires, emeralds and amethyst were from the Visigoth Kings who reigned in Toledo Spain from 653 to 672. These crowns were thought to have been royal offerings to the cathedral of Toledo.
Musée de Cluny: Daily Life In The Middle Ages
Room 19 in the Musée de Cluny is dedicated to daily life during the Middle Ages. You’ll find representations of furniture, eating, playing, and counting. Also on display are articles representing leisure, finery, and body care. It’s amazing what is familiar.
My absolute favourite is the chess game. The delightful stained glass representation of a man and a woman in deep concentration playing chess with the board game and box (1500) displayed below stopped me in my tracks. Who’s up for a chess game?
Relics From Sainte-Chapelle Of Paris
Did you know that King Louis IX later called Saint-Louis was a crusader? It was King Louis IX that brought back to Paris the Crown of Thorns, which survived the fire at Notre-Dame in 2019, and a fragment of the True Cross. King Louis IX built a chapel, Sainte-Chapelle, to house his treasures. During the restoration of Sainte-Chapelle in the 19th century, pieces that were not preserved were given to the Musée de Cluny for display. In Room 8 of the Musée de Cluny, you will find delightful fragments of stained glass and statues of the apostles from 1241 to 1248.
Le Musée De Cluny Practicalities
Museum Website: Musée de Cluny
Entrance: 28 rue Du Sommerard, 75005 Paris
Hours: Tuesdays to Sundays 9:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m.
Café des Amis at the Musée de Cluny: Plan your visit around a meal or a tea break at the Café des Amis situated in the heart of the museum.
I hope you enjoy visiting the Musée de Cluny as much as I did.
Until next time,
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