The Musée de Cluny is one of those curious museums I’ve always intended to visit but never quite got around to checking out. I say curious because while partially housed in late 1st century Roman baths, it’s actually France’s National Museum of the Middle Ages. Even more idiosyncratic, its whole raison d’etre comes courtesy of a collection compiled by an enthusiastic 18th century amateur. This trip, I made a point of visiting and my curiosity, as it were, was amply rewarded.
The sole structure remaining from the baths is the frigidarium, or cold room, whose recently restored vaulted ceilings reach up some 48 feet. It also turns out to be the most important Gallo-Roman monument north of the Loire. The adjoining 15th century Hotel Cluny is the first example in Paris of a private mansion in the middle of both a courtyard and garden. And though restored, it remains a prime example of the flamboyant Gothic architectural style.
The collections themselves are a bit of a hodge-podge of 12 century stained glass, sculptures and facings from Saint Germain des Pres and Saint Genevieve, and copious religious goldsmithing on display over two floors. One of the more interesting rooms contains what I kept calling the “headless chorus”: a dozen or so large sculptures from Notre Dame – along with twenty one (unrelated) monumental heads located nearby.
The museum’s piece de resistance, however, is a series of six millefleurs-style Flemish tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn. – seen below in very dignified manner on the side of a shopping bag available for purchase in the gift shop. Each panel represents one of the five senses: Taste, Sight, Touch, Smell, and Hearing, with the title of the sixth panel alluding to yet another sense – “To My Only Desire.” The complexity of the allegory makes each panel a universe unto itself. Displayed together the effect is almost hallucinogenic. How the complete set survived untouched in a chateau for almost 500 years seems not only improbable, but downright curious.