Boulevard Saint-Michel and the Cluny Museum

Boulevard Saint-Michel and the Cluny Museum.

Today I am looking for the distinctive spirit of the Middle Ages right in Paris.

In Paris, James Joyce could conjure up medieval times, and their links to Dublin, as a conversation with his friend Arthur Power shows:

“To my mind the Boulevard St Michel is one of the most attractive in Paris. Indeed, in no other part of Paris were you aware of the distinctive spirit of the Middle Ages, and as we walked down towards the river our conversation turned on … western Europe …Joyce remarked …[that] the Renaissance was an intellectual return to boyhood.” – Arthur Power, Conversations with James Joyce, 1978.

James Joyce was referring to the medieval ruins on the Boulevard Saint-Michel at the Musée National du Moyen Âge, the National Museum of the Middle Ages, known in short as the Cluny Museum. in the 5th arrondissement.

Part of the museum and the Gallo-Roman baths are open to the public to view a range of sculptures. The most noted displays are the six wool and silk tapestries of the Lady of the Unicorn dating back to the 15th century. The remainder of the museum, a medieval mansion, is closed for renovations, which are due for completion in 2021.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries arrived at the Cluny Museum in 1882, after being located in 1814 in the Boussac Castle in the French department of Cruese.

Author Tracy Chevalier wrote about the tapestries in her 2005 book The Lady and the Unicorn. The six tapestries date back to Jean Le Viste, a nobleman of King Charles VII, and the time of the crossroads between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Jean Le Viste commissioned artist Nicolas des Innocents to design the concept pictures for the large tapestries to be hung in Le Viste’s Grande Salle(Great Hall) in his residence at the rue du Four in Saint-Germain-des-Pres in Paris.Little was known of these famous tapestries, but Chevalier writes that the master weaver, the lissier Georges de la Chapelle, with his son, Georges Le Jeune, his family, and hired weavers, worked tirelessly on the task.The unveiling of the tapestries occurred during party celebrations for The Feast of St. Valentine.

In each of the six tapestries, the unicorn is situated closer and closer to a blond-haired woman until it rests in her lap. In the red background are images of animals and plants. The six tapestries are called: 

Sound (the unicorn is facing away from the lady);

Taste (the unicorn is near the lady but not looking at her);

Smell (the unicorn is next to the lady and looking at her);

Sight (the unicorn rests its front legs on the lady’s lap);

Touch (the lady touches the unicorn’s horn); and 

A Mon Seul Desir (My Sole Desire in which the lady has a necklace near a box, either putting it away or taking it out). 

The order of the series has never been conclusively determined though.

There are two other large tapestries in the Cluny Museum – The Bath and The Letter. 

The Bath (16th century) is a Renaissance wool and silk tapestry made in the south of the Netherlands. It is of the millefleur type (thousand flowers) decorated with plants and flowers in the background. It shows a young woman bathing among musicians and assistants. 

The Letter tapestry was made during the same period by the same artisans. A woman sits in an armchair. She is spinning wool while a young man presents or reads a letter to her. There is a small dog in the lady’s lap and a cat at her feet. The birds in the foreground include a partridge, a spoonbill, and a bird flying above her.

A large part of the sculptures in the Cluny Museum include the Heads of the Kings of Judah—the Gallery of Kings. The heads are from the portals of the western façade of the Notre-Dame Cathedral. There are now 21 of the original 28 Heads of the Kings of Judah. The real kings were beheaded during the French Revolution and the remains were found in a Paris garden in 1977.

Next to the Heads of the Kings of Judah in the Cluny Museum is the two-metre-high statue of Adam (circa 1260). It is the only surviving element of the monumental group of sculptures in the Notre-Dame Cathedral, and is considered to be one of the finest nudes of the Gothic era.

Indeed, in the Middle of Paris, on the Boulevard St Michel, and elsewhere in the Latin Quarter, are medieval ruins that remind visitors of a long-distant past—or, in the case of James Joyce, his own hometown. 

Published by MaNi

Martina Nicolls is an Australian author and international human rights-based consultant in education, healing and wellbeing, peace and stabilisation, and foreign aid audits and evaluations. She has written eight books and continues writing articles and thoughts through her various websites. She loves photography, reading, and nature. She currently lives in Paris, France.

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