One of the most interesting museums in Paris, a city filled with great museums, is the Musée National du Moyen-Age Thermes de Cluny in the Latin Quarter. The two important sites on the grounds are the 15th century mansion (the Cluny) with its collection of medieval art, and the 3rd-century Gallo-Roman baths (the Thermes).
The Cluny’s renovation in 2002 included the dramatic lighting of the building’s façade, showcasing its Flamboyant Gothic architecture. The building was constructed in the late 1400s for Benedictine monks visiting from Cluny. Owned for a time by a collector, it and the collection are now owned by the state.
Probably the best-known item in the Cluny’s outstanding exhibits is “The Lady and The Unicorn,” a group of six 12-feet by 9-feet silk and wool tapestries. Woven in Flanders in the late 15th century, the tapestries show dreamlike scenes, each with a richly gowned woman and a unicorn. Five illustrate the senses, and the last is titled “To My Only Desire.” The intricately woven works show trees, vines, flowers, birds, and animals, including a lion, a monkey, and rabbits. They all carried symbolic moral significance in medieval times.
The restored tapestries hang in the rotunda, dimly lighted to protect the colors. If you look closely at the lower edge of the panels, where ragged edges were repaired, you’ll see a difference in color. The newer dyes are not as bright as the earlier, vegetable-dyed sections. Additional noted tapestries hang in the chapel, the former abbots’ oratory, and in the room next to it. These great artworks were done with skill and amazing attention to detail.
The Cluny holds a collection of everyday items used in medieval homes. There are boiled-leather chests used to store jewelry, books, and documents; painted ceramic bowls; quaint shoes and wooden combs. A box of ebony and walnut has a game on each side and sliding trays with six different games, including chess and backgammon. Weights and coins speak of trade, and travel chests of pilgrimages of the day, perhaps to Chartres, St-Jacques of Compostelle, Rome, or Jerusalem.
The “Seignorial Life Room” holds a tapestry that shows lords and ladies at their leisure, reading, singing, reciting poetry, hunting, and being generally chivalrous. Another room displays weapons and armor.
An unusual item, rarely seen, is a wooden napkin holder of a kind that was commonly used by the upper classes. This one is the bust of a young woman in a low-cut dress and a tall hat with a veil falling beside her face. She holds a roller on which linen would have been placed.
Connected with the museum and on the grounds are the Thermes, or ancient baths, ruins that are probably one-third of the original bath complex. In the fragments of architecture and mosaics that remain, it’s easy to imagine the Romans and Gauls luxuriating in hot, tepid and cold baths. The most complete of the ruins is the “frigidarium.”
After a tour of the museum, it’s a pleasure to stroll in the garden, which was inspired by medieval gardens. There are kitchen, medicinal, and flower gardens, each with plants used some 600 years ago. Flagstones hold the footprints (and paw- and hoof-prints) of animals in the tapestries, including fox, rabbit, and, of course, unicorn.
The National Museum of the Middle Ages, at 6, place Paul Painlevé, is open daily except Tuesday, 9:15 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. It is closed January 1, May 1, and December 25. Admission is free the first Sunday of the month.