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This is the sixth in a monthly series of stories about the wonders of the Paris Metro System.
A quick rumble through the Cluny/La Sorbonne metro station on Line 10 reveals pristine white tiled walls and signs with ornate red typeface naming this historic stop.
Simple. Elegant. Minimalism at its best.
That was my impression for many years, having never stepped out onto the platform —always flying by on my way to the next stops, Maubert Mutualité or Odéon. But there are surprises everywhere in Paris.
When you step out and look up at the vaulted ceiling, a majestic mosaic world emerges — a world reflecting the Latin Quarter legacy of culture and education.
Beautiful bird wings flutter across the curved white sky, perhaps signifying the free-spirited heart of the Latin Quarter. And upscale mosaic “graffiti” (the ultimate in artistic tagging) reminds us of the movers and shakers in Latin Quarter life.
The Artistry of Jean Bazaine
The dramatic ceiling was designed by French artist Jean René Bazaine. Although he was a painter in the Modern School of Paris (including a solo exhibit at the Grand Palais in 1990), he was most noted for his mosaics and stained glass.
When offered this metro commission by Minister of Culture Jack Lang, he saw this station, with its unique middle track between the two working tracks, as an expansive cathedral. He also wanted to pay homage to the masters of the Sorbonne and of French history.
The high-flying birds are made of 60,000 enameled lava tiles from Volvic, a region in the Auvergne carved by volcanic eruptions of the past. One bird appears in a primarily blue palette and one in a palette of mostly reds. The birds shimmer in the soft lighting of the station — a lighting design by Bazaine himself to avoid the effects of “violent” lighting. (Note to RATP: It may be a bit too subtle. It’s pretty dark up there.)
Bazaine surrounds his noble birds with the signatures of dignitaries of the neighborhood — artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, and statesmen.
With luck and perseverance, you will find Louis XIV, Marie Curie, Voltaire, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Balzac, Delacroix, Courbet, Victor Hugo, George Sand, Louis Pasteur, Ignace de Loyola, Molière, Robespierre, and many more.
Most of the celebrities’ signatures are like unintelligible doctors’ notes; and the mosaic pieces, while artistic, make for less than fluid handwriting. So you may be looking at the ceiling for quite a while — lost in Parisian history. Not a bad place to spend some time.
A Chapter as a Phantom Station
The Cluny station was originally built in 1930, near the Musée de Cluny (or Musée Nationale du Moyen Age), but was closed in 1939 as a war energy conservation measure since it was close to other stations.
It remained one of those mysterious Paris ghost stations until 1988 when it was reopened under a new name that included its proximity to the Sorbonne and added a connection to the RER B and C at Saint-Michel—Notre-Dame.
When you emerge from the station, you are steps away from the Ile de la Cité and all its rewards, the Sorbonne University, the neighborhood McDonald’s, and the Saint-Séverin church where you can see beautiful abstract stained glass windows also by Bazaine. It is truly the heart of Paris.
However, your first glance is of the Musée de Cluny, with its remnants of second century Gallo-Roman baths, the medieval mansion built in the 14th century that houses the museum, the fine collection of medieval art, and the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestry. (Note the museum is currently closed for renovation, with an expected reopening this spring.)
The Metro Moral
The moral of this metro story: Don’t forget to look up (and down … and all around). There are treasures everywhere in Paris.
Lead photo credit : Detail of Les Oiseaux in the Cluny/Sorbonne metro station. © Meredith Mullins