Musée de Cluny is young and beautiful again

Tapestry of the Lady and the Unicorn : Sight, ca 1500 © RMN-Grand Palais (musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen-Âge) / M. Urtado

You thought there was nothing happening in Paris in the summer and went away with a tranquil feeling of not missing anything. Well you were wrong! Musée de Cluny very quietly reopened on July 14th, when everyone had something better to do, except for the 3 080 visitors who rushed over the week end to see it and it is stunning. A special exhibition “Magic Unicorns”, around the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn is hanging in the new gallery designed by architect Bernard Desmoulin (who is working on Hospital Lariboisière at the moment)and one can walk above the Roman ruins which date back to the first century.

Musée de Cluny was rejuvenated by Bernard Desmoulin, © M. Denancé

The six tapestries which were just shown in Sydney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, are the 1500 equivalent of the Mona Lisa. A mystery surrounds them: they were either made in Paris or in the Flanders, and represent the five senses. It is believed that the sixth, “My only desire” which shows two ladies fidling with a jewelry case, could have an erotic meaning.

Dormition of the Virgin, Constantinople, late X th early XI th century, elephant ivory

The Unicorn was a topic of fascination in this awkward period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and it was associated to virgin girls, chastity and innocence. Aristotle and Plinus mentioned the animal in their writings and there are signs of it in the Bible. These tapestries were first found in 1814 in château de Boussac in la Creuse (central France), they were later saved by Prosper Mérimée, a famous French writer author of “Carmen” who was also Inspector General for historical monuments and noticed them in 1841 with George Sand. They were acquired by Musée de Cluny where they have been exhibited since 1882. The Cloisters in New York have a tapestry showing a “Hunt with the Unicorn” that dates from the same period.

Aquamanile : Unicorn, copper, ca 1400 © RMN-Grand Palais (musée de Cluny – musée national du Moyen-Âge) / G. Blot

In the 20 th century, Gustave Moreau, Le Corbusier, Jean Cocteau, Toni Ungerer and Saint Clair Cemin are among the artists who were fascinated by this magical creature whose horn could protect from poisoning. There is an interesting modern tapestry by Jean Lurçat and Jean Picard Le Doux, a series of drawings by Gustave Moreau, a few precious manuscripts but unfortunately the contemporary part is poor except for Saint Clair Cemin’s “Unicorn head” lent by Musée de la Chasse. It is so badly lit though, that you can’t see it properly.

Jean Picart Le Doux, Tribute to the unicorn, Aubusson

Besides this exhibition, the museum, which is still under restoration, has opened a room of treasures, a collection of rare stunning ivory sculptures from the Middle Ages, an altarpiece for Pentecost in gilt copper (1160-1170) and enamel plates.

Down below, you can visit the Frigidarium, where the Cluny Roman baths used to be in the 2nd century. This was the place where people went to cool down after hot baths and of course this week in Paris they were very warm…

The frigidarium is a very impressive space on the lower level

The exhibition is on at Musée de Cluny, until February 25, 2019 and is open every day except Tuesdays.

Inside the new wing designed by Bernard Desmoulin, © M. Denancé

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One Comment on ““Musée de Cluny is young and beautiful again”

  1. catherine bernard

    Laure.. A mon seul desir: this young lady is giving up all her pleasures represented by the 5 senses, in the last double tapestry she has CUT her hair, is giving away her jewels,inside the tent is white as her pure soul while the star-studded blue cloth (akin to the mantle of the Holy Virgin) is protecting her.. she is about to enter a convent .. her only desire..

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