Musee de Cluny, Paris

Musee de Cluny is easily accessible from either Boulevard St. Michel or Boulevard St. Germain or Rue St. Jacques. Its official name is rather long; translated into English, it means Museum of Medieval Art and Thermes (baths). The ancient baths are outside, and they seem to be under reconstruction. There is also a medieval garden. The exhibits are collected in what is called hotel, which means mansion. By the way hotel is a rather misleading word as it may refer to a house, a Mairie (town hall) or indeed to a hotel.

What better way to spend your time when it’s raining cats and dogs, or since we are in France it’s maybe raining mice and frogs? So I rushed to the bus stop in the downpour, managed to emerge on Rue des Ecoles correctly, walked around a bit until I realized that the little door I have already seen twice in my wanderings was THE entrance. In the yard behind the door there was a small tent where visitors’ bags were opened and looked at, and a very polite guard moved the metal-finder around everyone.  Then I entered, ready to pay the €8 entrance fee, to be informed that today’s visit was free!  On to the halls then.

Naturally I read about the museum beforehand. I knew the building was founded circa 1330, then rebuilt and renovated in the fifteenth century. It used to house an Abbey, so some chambers still preserved the seats, the choir, the decorations and the treasures of the long gone era, some of them as old as the fifth or seventh century. The main attractions are the tapestries which are over 500 years old; they depict the six human senses in charming allegories with the Lady and the Unicorn. A large chamber is devoted to stained glass windows, with every panel lovingly cleaned up and displayed at eye level so that one can really see all the details. There are lots of statues, column fragments, silver and gold utensils and reliquaries, and even some lovely crowns.

The tapestries are amazingly preserved. The colors are very bright and lively, the figures appear to be constantly moving, the allegories are very simple and easy to understand. Once I saw them I felt an immediate uplifting of spirits, a joy one only feels when confronted with Art itself. In one of the other chambers called Domestic one can see the same kind of tapestries which recreate everyday life, people laughing, cooking, eating, playing. It is like a window into the Past carefully saved for us to peek into. There is also a fireplace with all the surrounding paraphernalia.

I was fortunate enough to coincide with a group of school children aged maybe 12 who came with their teacher for a history lesson or an excursion. They spoke in hushed voices, asked lots of questions and plopped down on the floor to study the exhibits. It is always good to watch the sincere reactions of children who see something ancient for the first time and wonder about their ancestors. How did they do it? a young boy asked. Indeed, how did they do it when they had no machines, no computers? More amazing though is another question which children do not yet realize: how do people manage to preserve all that?

In a little picture gallery I made a little discovery of my own. One of the views was painted by Achille Poirot, a French painter of  the nineteenth century. The last name naturally brought to mind the celebrated Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Perhaps she had visited the same museum, or she knew about the painter. There is a portrait of Alexandre du Sommerard, who bought and restored Hotel Cluny in the 19th century. He placed his own extensive collection of Medieval Art in it. In mid-19th century, Hotel Cluny was bought by the state; it was turned into a public museum, and Sommerard’s son became its first curator. One of the little streets nearby bears the family’s name.

it is one of those beautiful large part-Gothic part-Romanesque sprawling turreted structures which are a delight for any architecture lover. And the modest museum it houses, with lots of historical treasures, is a place to come back to again and again.

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