What comes to mind when you think of Paris? Most likely famous sites like the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Élysées, and the Louvre are the ones that come most readily. These sites certainly define modern Paris, but they neglect to tell the city’s entire story. Paris was founded in the 3rd century and successively gained power throughout the Middle Ages. Between the 10th and 12th centuries, Paris gained the royal residence and several major universities. It was also during this period that construction on the Louvre and Notre Dame cathedral took place. Art also developed substantially during this time, with illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, and tapestries among the most common media. Examples of this art can be found in the spectacularly preserved Musée National du Moyen Âge (National Museum of the Middle Ages), also referred to as the Cluny Museum.
Educate yourself about the fascinating history
Before even entering the museum visitors are greeted with an incredible show. The museum’s building is a fascinating combination of Gothic and Renaissance elements blended with the ruins of Paris’ 3rd century Roman baths. Construction on the building began in 1334. Although its original purpose was to house the Abbots of Cluny, it served many other roles in the centuries that followed.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, several royals lived in the manor, including Mary Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII of England. Starting in the 18th century, the building’s tower was used as an observation tower for astronomers. At one point the museum also housed a dissection room for physicians. In 1833 archeologist and art collector Alexandre du Sommerard bought the building and filled it with his collection of medieval and Renaissance objects. When du Sommerard died in 1842, France bought the collection and transformed the building into a museum.
When visiting the museum, be aware that there are two buildings to visit: the frigidarium (cooling room) where the ruins of the Roman baths are and the Hôtel de Cluny, where the medieval artifacts are stored.
Get lost in the collections
Regardless of your taste in art, you will find something of interest at this incredibly diverse museum. There are sculptures of religious icons dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries, gold and ivory jewelry, stained glass, and a variety of detailed manuscripts. Another interesting feature of the museum is the fact that the collection is made up not only of art, but also items that highlight what daily life in the Middle Ages was like such as furniture, fabrics, and clothes. Much of the art is religious in nature, as this reflected the milieu during this era, but there are some secular pieces as well.
Gaze at the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry
The museum’s crowning glory is without a doubt the six-tapestry series called La Dame à la Licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), which dates back to 1500. These six tapestries are housed in a light-and temperature-controlled room on the top floor of the museum. They are considered one of the greatest works of art of the Middle Ages in Europe. Five of the tapestries are often related to the five senses. The final tapestry totes the inscription “À mon seul désir” (“To my sole desire”), an inscription that remains unclear, but is often interpreted as representing love or understanding. Although each tapestry is slightly different, each depicts a noblewoman with a unicorn on her left and a lion on her right. Fans of the Harry Potter movies will recognize the tapestry as it can be seen hanging in the Gryffindor Common Room.
Make the time to visit one of Paris’ oldest museums
While it’s certain that the Louvre will be at the top of your “to visit” list in Paris, take a break from the crowds and spend a few hours at the Cluny Museum. The building is perhaps one of the most unique in Paris and will immediately transport you years back in time. Inside, pour over the incredibly well-preserved artifacts, both religious and secular.
The museum is open Wednesday through Monday (closed Tuesdays) from 9.15 AM to 5.45 PM. Entry is 8 EUR (8.50 USD) for adults. The museum is free for everyone under 18 and for Europeans under 26. Access the museum by taking subway line 10 and getting off at the Odéon station. Be aware if you ask for directions that while the museum is officially called the Museum of the Middle Ages, most Parisians refer to it as the Cluny Museum.
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