The National Medieval Art Museum in Paris, also known as the Musée Cluny, is one of Europe's loveliest collections dedicated to the arts, daily life, and social and religious history of the Middle Ages in France. Although it was closed for the entirety of 2018 and much of 2019, Musée Cluny reopened to the public on July 14, 2019.
Housed in the gothic-style Hôtel de Cluny, a 15th-century mansion which was itself built atop the foundations of Roman thermal baths, the permanent collections at the museum are especially rich and include the iconic Flanders tapestry known around the world for its enigmatic beauty, "The Lady and the Unicorn." The Roman frigidarium is fascinating, as are objects of daily life, art, and clothing from the medieval period also found here.
Location and Contact Information
The museum is located in Paris' 5th arrondissement (district), in the very center of the historic Latin Quarter. Nearby attractions include Sorbonne University, Sainte-Chapelle, Jardin du Luxembourg and the Musée du Luxembourg, as well as the famed Notre-Dame Cathedral, which tragically suffered major fire damage in early 2019.
- Address: Hôtel de Cluny, 6, Place Paul Painlevé
- Entrance: After July 14, 2019, the main entrance of the museum is located at 28 rue Du Sommerard 75005 Paris.
- Metro/RER: Saint-Michel or Cluny-la-Sorbonne
The Layout of the Collections
The permanent exhibits at the museum offer a broad overview of arts and artisanry from the early Middle Ages through the cusp of the Renaissance in the 15th century. The museum is especially strong for its collection of medieval fabrics and tapestries from Europe, Iran, and the Middle East. The Museum is laid out in several thematic collections:
- The Ground Floor: Includes the Gallo-Roman baths (temporary exhibits are held here), beautiful stained-glass windows from the medieval period, and statuary
- The First Floor: Houses The Rotunda of the Lady and the Unicorn, other tapestries and fabrics, paintings, woodcarvings, goldsmith works, and objects used in daily and military life.
- The medieval-style garden: Located on the side of the Hôtel de Cluny facing Boulevard St-Germain and is accessible for free
Also make sure to admire the medieval statuary, objects from everyday life (clothing, shoes, accessories, hunting artifacts), religious painting and wood carvings, stained glass panels, and delicate manuscripts. On the ground floor, a visit to all that remains of the Roman thermal baths that once stood here, the Frigidarium, now houses temporary exhibits. Outside stand the ruins of the Caldarium (hot bath) and Tepidarium (tepid bath).
"The Lady and the Unicorn"
The most celebrated work at the museum is undoubtedly the enormous 15th-century tapestry, "La Dame et la Licorne," which is housed in its own low-light rotunda on the first floor of the museum.
Attributed to anonymous, late 15th century Flanders weavers and inspired by a medieval German legend, the work is composed of six panels representing the five human senses and a final panel ostensibly meant to bring the knowledge of these senses into a single allegorical image. French writer Prosper Mérimée helped make it famous after he discovered it in an obscure French castle, and later Romantic writer George Sand immortalized it in her works.
The enigmatic tapestry shows a lady interacting with a unicorn and other animals in various scenes representing the pleasures (and dangers) of the senses. Touch, Sight, Smell, Taste, and Hearing make up the five main panels, and a sixth panel, cryptically named "A mon seul désir" (To My Only Desire) is thought by some art historians to possibly represent the triumph of moral and spiritual clarity over the trappings of the senses.
The unicorn and the lion depicted in the panels wear armor with crests identifying the benefactor of the work as Jean le Viste, a noble who was close to King Charles VII.
The tapestry captured the imagination of Romantic writers like Mérimée and Sand and continues to fascinate for its allegorical depth and vibrant yet subtle use of texture and color. Make sure to reserve plenty of time to sit and meditate on the work.
The Medieval Garden
The aromatic medieval-style garden at the Hôtel de Cluny is an essential destination for those interested in the history of medicinal plant and herb cultivation. The garden includes a "kitchen garden" featuring common vegetables such as chives and cabbage; a medicinal garden growing with sage and eight other essential herbs, while a lovely path around the garden is lined with wallflowers, valerian, and Christmas roses. There are also fragrant plants such as jasmine and honeysuckle.