Yesterday was the first Sunday of November, and on the first Sunday of the month here in Paris, many museums that normally charge to enter open their doors for free visits. I chose to go to the Musée Cluny for the first time yesterday. It is a favorite of one of my friends back home, so I thought I’d go see what all the fuss was about. Now I think it’s one of my favorites, too.
The building that houses the museum is very impressive. It was begun in the 14th century, and in 1843 it was turned into a museum. It is located right at the intersection of the Boulevard St-Michel and the Boulevard St-Germain, which is a busy area on the left bank. The hôtel is surrounded by really beautiful gardens that are always free to enter. Since it’s getting to be winter, the gardens were not at their most spectacular yesterday so I’ll definitely be back in the spring to see them at their finest. They were still nice though.
The entrance to the museum is located just off a nice medium-sized courtyard that immediately transports you back in time. I entered (for free!) and got an audio guide for €1, but I quickly abandoned it (you’ll see why later).
The first thing I saw was a room of stained glass from the 12th and 13th centuries. It was really beautiful, and I was surprised that it was in such good condition. The glass is from medieval churches in France, and it was illuminated all over the small room that housed it.
Next I moved on to a large open room that had the original sculptures from the Notre Dame de Paris. They were fantastic. Several massive heads representing the Kings of Judah were there; they had been plundered from the Notre Dame during the revolution because they represented monarchs. They were found in 1977 buried during excavation to build a garage. There were also many saints, but they were missing their heads. I believe these statues were also victims of the revolution. Fun fact: all of the original sculptures on the Notre Dame (and many other medieval locations around town) were originally done in color! You can see some red pigmentation on the lips and cheeks of the statues if you look closely, and some darker colors in the eyes. I had no idea. The room is vast and contains all types of original sculptures from Notre Dame. It also hosts concerts throughout the year, which would be a really cool venue to see some classical music. Yesterday they were getting ready for a concert of medieval chant music when I was there. Fantastic.
The next room I saw was quite a treat: the building is partially built on the site of 1st-3rd century Roman baths! The cavernous room is still intact, and you can see where the pool was, some baths, and large indoor sporting area. How amazing.
Then I went through rooms and rooms of medieval sculptures, books (they have some very nice illuminated manuscripts), art, tapestries, artifacts, and anything else you can think of. Some of my favorites were a chapel in the building with incredible vaulted ceilings and some medieval wooden chair stalls, a collection of rings, some shields and armor, and a collection of kitchen apparatuses and knives.
Shields at the top of the Display Case
At some point you come to the absolute highlight of the museum: La dame à la Licorne tapestries (“The Lady and the Unicorn“). They are six tapestries from around the year 1500 that are huge and magnificent. They portray a woman with a unicorn and lion surrounded by flowers, trees, and other animals (my favorite is the monkey). They are considered one of the most important works of the middle ages in Europe. I sat for a while on a bench just trying to absorb them all. There is a lot to look at in them. I couldn’t take pictures of these gorgeous tapestries because they’re in a dark room (I assume for preservation purposes). Click the underlined title in the beginning of this paragraph for the wikipedia article, which contains pictures of all six tapestries.
My favorite part of the trip was a complete surprise. There were at least a couple of art students in each room to talk to the visitors about the art in the room. I don’t know if this was a special event, or if they always do that on the first Sunday of the month, or why they were there, but it was fantastic! The students would talk to a group of people, and you could walk over and listen to them explain a certain piece or collection, or sometimes if they didn’t have a group and they saw you take a particular interest in something, they’d come over and ask if you wanted an explanation of the piece that interested you. This happened to me, and I of course said yes, and I had a wonderful discussion with an art student about the array of influences on the statues from the Sainte-Chapelle and how the revolutionaries cut off the heads of the statues. I was able to ask all kinds of questions, and she was very knowledgeable. I learned so much from the students about the museum’s collection that I never would have known if I’d been listening to the audio guide, which only had short descriptions of the highlights. The students were able to tailor their discussions to the particular audience, and I saw a very patient girl talking to some well-behaved children that couldn’t have been older than about 5 all about unicorns and answering their questions. It was a really fantastic way to experience the museum. The discussions were all in French, so Anglophones should bring a Francophone friend who is very patient and able to translate. I am assuming that they had the students there yesterday because it was the first Sunday of the month, so a lot of Parisians come to the museums. That’s just a guess though. If anyone knows more information about the art students at the museum, please leave a comment; I’d love to learn more about the program.
I highly recommend this museum. It was a great collection. I could have stayed much longer than I did.
New words: créancier/débiteur (creditor/debtor), un point-virgule (semicolon), une virgule (comma, math: decimal point, because they use commas instead), selon (according to), selon que (depending on whether), s’agir (to be about), à défaut de (in the absence of/lack of/failing), rattachement (unification, incorporation), concubine (partner/cohabitant, but you only use this if you live with someone with whom you are in a relationship, also it doesn’t have the same connotation as in English as far as I can tell), alimentaire (dietary), gestion (management), le chômage (unemployment), exprimer (to express)