Medieval Marvels at the Cluny Museum

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Medieval Marvels at the Cluny Museum
It won’t matter if you are a bit hazy on the details of Charles VII who was king of France from 1422-1461. You will surely still love the exhibition on the arts during his reign which is running at the Musée de Cluny until June 16th. It is chock full of colorful medieval pieces, from large-scale royal tapestries to exquisite illuminated manuscripts, and if you wanted to wander and enjoy, rather than focus too much on the historical context, you would certainly find much to admire. Not that the history isn’t fascinating too, for it was Charles, backed by Joan of Arc, who wrested his country back from English rule and brought the 100 Years War to an end.  Art historians have sometimes commented that art was “of marginal interest” to Charles, but the variety and quality of what’s on show here is proof that many talented painters, illuminators, sculptors and weavers were at work during his reign in mid-15th century France. One stand-out highlight is the tapestry canopy of Charles VII, used to impress his subjects when he was holding court in public. Another is the collection of illuminated manuscripts and Books of Hours, such as Les Grandes Heures de Rohan, whose prayers and litanies are lavishly illustrated in jewel-like colors with gold leaf highlights.    The Receuil Poétique has an unexpectedly playful element to it. It’s a collection of poems dedicated to the king and it includes a puzzle. Letters scattered among the illustrations can be rearranged to read: “Vive le très puissant Roi de France, Charles le septième.” (“Long live the most powerful King of France, Charles VII.”) And to discover a little of Charles’ story is to understand why those artists loyal to him used their work to pay him tribute and why he himself commissioned pieces to reinforce the legitimacy of his kingship. For his reign began in turbulent circumstances. In 1418, before he was even officially crowned king, Charles had to flee Paris when the Burgundians staged a coup and there was also the ongoing problem of fighting off the English whose king, Henry V, was laying claim to the French crown. Charles  took refuge in Bourges and it was a number of years until – with the support of Joan of Arc – he was crowned at Reims. That was a turning point, but it was more years still until he managed to return to Paris and begin the second, more stable, part of his reign. It’s no wonder then, that he used works of art to proclaim his right to rule. The most striking examples displayed here are two major tapestry works. The Canopy of Charles VII is the only known medieval canopy still in existence. This large piece would have been hung as a vertical backdrop when Charles appeared in public, perhaps to dispense justice or to collect taxes. Its very size is impressive, as is the colorful design showing two angels descending to crown him, thus conveying the idea that he had a divine right to rule. A second large work is the Winged Deer Tapestry which has been borrowed for the exhibition from the Musée des Antiquités in Rouen. The winged deer was Charles’ favorite personal emblem and this splendid depiction would certainly have conveyed the notion of his majesty to his subjects. The tapestry bears his coat of arms too, further reinforcing the message.
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Lead photo credit : Cluny Museum exhibit. © Marian Jones

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.