Visit the Cluny Medieval Museum in Paris

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Visit the Cluny Medieval Museum in Paris

Travel back centuries to the museum built around the ruins of a Gallo-Roman Bath in the Latin Quarter. Before it closes for renovations at the end of September, the Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge will host special celebratory events.

We have been granted a reprieve!

Before the coronavirus lockdown in Paris, the plan was for this lovely museum to close its doors at the end of June 2020 and not reopen until the Spring of 2021. This closure was intended to complete the top-to-bottom renovations that commenced in 2016. But the Cluny Museum directors decided the long coronavirus-based closure required that they reopen for a time this year- namely July 1- September 28, after which the museum will shutter for the aforementioned renovation.

Vue extérieure de l’hôtel des abbés de Cluny. Vue de la cour depuis la galerie supérieure. Paris, musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen Âge. © RMN-Grand Palais / Thierry Ollivier

Until recently the website was confusing as to what was open, and what was not; none of the English translations had been updated; and Adam, the little interactive cartoon question and answer man was still showing an early closure and other misinformation.

Now, although some of the English is still not entirely updated Adam has totally updated his corner of the site (though, again, only in French) so I was able to “speak” with him in detail. Therefore, be assured that he and I are now “d’accord” when I discuss below what is available these two months.

If you read French, feel free to go to ask questions of Adam yourself. He is an antique statue on display in the museum in his sculpted glory, but made into a cartoon for the website, now wearing a mask, and he is there to solve your problems. Here is the link to the most practical and useful page on the website where you can find all of the links, as well as the one to Adam. (And don’t miss Adam’s quiz to “tester votre connaissance sur le Moyen Age”- fun!)

Also on that page you will find information on events include a “Masterpieces of the Museum” exhibit on August 3, and a “Program of the Festive Weekend and Closing of the Cluny Museum” on September 18 – and at that time there will be interpretive dancing around the collections. Also there is a singing tour to the works on Sunday September 20 and other dance, theater and music creating sensory experiences described in this new site addition as a “joyful and free celebration of heritage before the museum closes its doors for the last phase of the work.”

Adam. Provenant de Notre-Dame de Paris. Vers 1260 Paris, musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen Âge. © RMN-Grand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski

The Cluny Museum of Medieval History is an unusual and fascinating trip through history within a structure that combines the ruins of a third century Gallo Roman bath complex known as the “Thermes de Cluny” – which at one time stretched to almost three times its current remaining footprint; plus a townhouse with gothic style facades, built as a private residence in 1485 by Jacques d’Amboise, the Abbot of Cluny. When he built next door to the Thermes – he caused them to be preserved and integrated with his new structure.

The Village of Lutetia (Paris’ predecessor) was built by the Romans after the ancient tribe of the Parisii was conquered by a guy named Julius Caesar around 52 BC. The Romans later built a city around what is now a substantial chunk of the left bank, with the main part of the city up on a hill near where the Pantheon is today (the hill of St Genevieve) – probably because the area along the Seine was marshy – and extending north to include Ile de la Cite (the island on which Notre Dame sits today). They laid out roads heading towards Spain (now rue St Jacques) and towards Rome (now rue Mouffetard); and, as they often did, the Romans made sure that their city included a huge bathhouse complex. These Gallo-Roman Thermes de Cluny covered an area roughly from boulevard St Michel and Rue de Cluny on the west and east, respectively, and from the boulevard St Germain on the north to rue des Ecoles on the south.

Think about the dimensions within these boundaries. This was an impressively huge bathhouse complex. As was customary, it was also open to the public.

Chapelle de l’hôtel des abbés de Cluny Paris, musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen Âge. © RMN-Grand Palais / Thierry Ollivier

The baths were Rome’s attempt to “Romanize” the Gauls since such baths were common throughout the Roman territories. Although roving barbarian groups destroyed these baths at the end of the 3rd century, several substantial pieces remain – including a large room called the “frigidarium” within the walls of the Museum – once the large cold pool in the bath house into which patrons would jump before heading towards the heat of the Caldarium. This room also today houses much of the museum’s collections, including the Pilier des Nautes (“Pillar of the boatmen”), a Roman column originally erected in Lutetia in honor of Jupiter and offered to the emperor Tiberius by the guild of boatmen in the 1st century AD. This wonderful artifact was discovered in the 18th century under the choir of Notre Dame.

Outside – to the west of the main building – is an open air below ground level architectural site that was once the Caldarium (a very hot steamy room that housed a bath of very hot water built into the floor). Does anyone remember Tony Soprano’s wife and her friend standing down there when they travelled to Paris?)

Jardin d’inspiration médiévale/ Créé en 2000 par E. Ossart et A. Maurières Paris, musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen Âge. © RMN-Grand Palais / Franck Raux

Within the museum is a substantial collection of artworks from a number of eras, including the Middle Ages. Some date back to the original takeover of Parisii by Rome. Artifacts from everyday life are displayed to be visited by smaller groups on ticketed tours at reserved times. This exhibit is called “Regards Sur La Vie Quotidienne” (or “A Window Onto Everyday Life” where the curators organized objects around a number of themes, including medieval households, art of the table, religious devotion, care of the body, toys and games, measuring instruments, and reading/writing. This exhibit is an adjunct to the “treasures” presentation that began in 2018 – consisting of some of the most special works from the Cluny collections, including silverware, tapestries and ivories, displayed in a special room dedicated to temporary presentations.) The idea of this exhibit is to show what life was like during Medieval times, and according to Adam – my new best friend – it is very much available though you have to go onto the website to reserve a time for your visit.

Here is the link to use if you want to reserve a time to visit this exhibit.

les joueurs d’échec. Vitrail provenant de l’hôtel de la Bessée à Villefranche-sur-Saône. Vers 1450. Paris, musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen Âge. © RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

There is also a current exhibit of 70 pieces from their collection of gold artifacts (which according to my good friend Adam “brillent de mille feux” – that is, shine brightly, like a thousand fires).

And, finally, you should not miss the renowned and beautiful display of six tapestries featuring a woman and unicorns (“la Dame a la licorne” or “The Lady and the Unicorn”) who Adam tells me still resides in her own exhibit room (“La Salle de la Dame a la licorne.”) .

These tapestries have always been known as a most special display, and I am glad they are still available during this summer. I last saw them two years ago and I recall that they were beautifully displayed and gorgeous to behold.

The tapestries of the woman and unicorn were first rediscovered in the 19th century and represent a mystery on several levels.

Tenture de la dame à la licorne : « Mon seul désir » Vers 1500. Paris, musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen Âge. © RMN-Gand Palais / Michel Urtado

Historians have identified the coat of arms on the draperies as that of Le Liste – a bourgeois family from Lyon that was integrated into Parisian nobility during the 15th and 16th centuries, but are yet to discover which member of the family is referred to in the coat of arms. One was president of the Parliament in Paris, one was advisor to Parliament. Also, the lion and unicorn are thought to refer to Lisle (from where the family originated) .

The tapestries were made from cartoons some time in the last two decades of the 15th century and the creator of the cartoons is thought to have been in the Bourbon court and the weaving to have been done by one of the workshops in Brabant, Flanders or the Netherlands. These facts are also uncertain.

But besides the uncertainty of their origin, the main mystery about these beautiful tapestries is their meaning.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry. Photo: Michele Kurlander

They may have been produced it is thought to mark a wedding or such family event – but the females are all different.

The most certainty about their meaning was achieved during the 1920s when historians decided that five of the six were intended as allegories of the five senses: Sight (the lady holding a mirror in which the unicorn is reflected); Hearing (she is playing a portable organ while a maidservant works its bellows); Smell (she is weaving a garland of flowers and has just taken a carnation from her servant’s basket which she holds up to her nose to savor); Taste ( the lady takes a piece of confectionary from her maidservant’s basket); and Touch (she holds a standard depicting a coat of arms while her other hand touches the unicorn’s horn).

Whatever their meaning they are beautiful to see.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Photo: Michele Kurlander, 2018

Another mystery is the meaning of the sixth tapestry, The words “ A Mon Seul Desir” (To my only desire) are inscribed in gold embroidery in a blue pavilion just behind the lady. Does the tapestry represent a celebration of desire and courtly love? But the word “Desir” can be interpreted by one of the Latin meanings as “appeasement” or “regret” – so perhaps, according to some researchers, the tapestries represent a renunciation of the pleasure of the senses.

One source pronounces that the lady’s failure to choose jewels from her servant’s box but instead return her own necklace to the box may mean she desires to release herself from passions “unleashed by poorly-controlled senses,” while others prefer the idea that the source of the tapestries’ meaning was a passage from a commentary to Plato’s “Banquet” by a Florentine philosopher (written in Latin in 1468 but later translated to French when published in Lyon in 1503) – a passage in which the philosopher posited that there were six ways for a man in love to recognize beauty: through the five senses along with the intellect and that the statement on the sixth tapestry would mean “the only thing that love desires is beauty of the soul”.

The above information and related quotes is taken from a pamphlet I picked up at the Cluny, which I hope is still available since it is fascinating.

La vie domestique (salle 22). Paris, musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen Âge. © RMN-Grand Palais / René-Gabriel Ojéda

Practical Information

The museum is open Wednesday to Monday from 9:15 am to 5:45 pm. The ticket office closes at 5:15 pm. The Medieval Hotel and courtyard are currently closed because of the renovation project, and there is a restricted visit route but, again, Adam has told me all of the above are available.

Also, the website assures visitors that hydroalcoholic gel is available at the entrance for hand washing, no more than 100 people are accepted in the visiting areas, there are a number of waiting areas to facilitate physical distancing, and the direction of movement is marked on the ground to facilitate your visit. You cannot bring a backpack since lockers are out of service.

Wearing a mask is compulsory for everyone over the age of 11. (Even our unicorn lady has started wearing a mask on the site.) Finally, no handouts will be available, and visitors are advised to download the “Cluny in pocket” visit application. The link to this application is available on the website.

Tickets are 5 euros standard, 4 euros reduced price, but the prices increase to 9 euros for full price and 7 euros reduced price during the temporary exhibitions in the frigidarium. Entry is free on the first Sunday of the month, and everyone under the age of 18, and members of the European community aged 18-25 outside the exhibition period, active teachers with an education pass, pupils of the Ecole du Louvre, art and restoration schools, professional artists, and certain others.

Samson et le lion. Vitrail provenant de la Sainte-Chapelle de Paris. Vers 1250. Paris, Musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen Âge. © RMN-Grand Palais / Franck Raux

Go to the web page and click on the “visit” link on the “home” page and from there the “practical information” link for this and other information. According to the website, in order to conform with COVID rules, all events must be reserved by telephone on 01 53 73 78 16 (Monday to Friday, except Tuesday, at 915 to 5:30 pm.

Enjoy your visit!

I wish I could come to France to join you.

Musée National du Moyen Age
Public entrance: 28 rue Du Sommerard 75005 Paris
Tel. +33 1 53 73 78 00 or +33 1 53 73 78 16
Mail: contact.musee-moyenage

l’arithmétique Pièce d’une tenture illustrant les arts libéraux. Vers 1520 Paris, musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen Âge. © RMN-Grand Palais / Michel Urtado

Têtes des rois de Juda. Provenant de Notre-Dame de Paris Paris, vers 1220-1230 Paris, musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen Âge. © RMN-Grand Palais / Gérard Blot

Lead photo credit : Tenture de Saint Etienne : le corps du martyr exposé aux bêtes. Vers 1500. Paris, musée de Cluny - musée national du Moyen Âge. © Rmn-Grand Palais / Jean- Gilles Berizzi

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Michele is a corporate lawyer and writer who visits France often and is convinced she must have been French in an earlier life -probably hanging around with Ernest Hemingway during what she calls his "cute" stage, living on Cardinal Lemoine and writing on rue Descartes - which just happens to be be her usual stomping ground. From her first time in Paris and that first feeling of familiarity she has returned often as if it is her second home. Now the hotels are Airbnb apartments and she enjoys being a short-term local and shopping at the market, cooking her own meals. Sitting on her own Paris balcony , a wineglass or morning coffee in hand, she writes her journal, describing her walks around town as the proverbial flâneur and taking notes for the future’s stories and travel pieces.

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  • Diana Nicholson
    2020-08-07 09:37:12
    Diana Nicholson
    Wonderful history lesson. My next visit to Paris will Definitely include a day in and around this museum.


  • Ruth Sklar
    2020-08-06 06:43:19
    Ruth Sklar
    My favorite site in Paris is the Cluny. I try to go to Paris for a month every year. This year and last were no-goes because I moved back to Philadelphia. I plan to return next spring if there is a vaccine for COVID-19. This article was a joy to read and I can’t wait to return there. Thank you!