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Medieval Tapestries and Treasures at Musée de Cluny

The Musée de Cluny, also known as the Musée national du Moyen Âge (Museum of the Middle Ages), is a museum in Paris that features one of the world’s richest collections of medieval (5th-15th century C.E.) artefacts. It is located in the Latin Quarter, in the 5th arrondissement, in a 15th century mansion known as the Hôtel de Cluny. One of the highlights of the museum’s collection is The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. The museum also contains an ancient Roman bathhouse and a medieval garden.

The 15th century mansion and its courtyard, as well as the entrance to the museum.

In the 13th century, Cluny Abbey (a Benedictine monastery that originated in southern Burgundy) decided to open a religious college in Paris. The Abbey purchased a plot of land located just south of the current site of the Sorbonne. That land contained an ancient Roman bathhouse but, instead of having the old building demolished, the Abbey had it incorporated into the complex they had constructed. That complex contained a building for the college as well as a residence for its abbots (built in 1334). In 1485, the residence was taken over by Jacques d’Amboise, Bishop of Clermont and Abbot of Jumièges. He had the residence rebuilt from 1485-1510, which became the Hôtel de Cluny.

Exterior of the ancient Roman bathhouse, now a part of the museum.

Over the following years, the Hôtel de Cluny housed various nobles, ecclesiastic diplomats, an astronomer, and even a physician. One notable resident included Mary Tudor¹, the third wife of French King Louis XII. In 1789, the Hôtel was seized by the state. In 1833, it was purchased by Alexandre du Sommerard, a French archaeologist and art collector. He was one of the first people to take an interest in the Middle Ages, and he put his extensive collection of 1,500 Medieval and Renaissance objects on display at the Hôtel de Cluny. Upon Alexandre’s death in 1842, the French state purchased the Hôtel and its artefacts. The building was opened as the Musée de Cluny in 1843, and Alexandre’s son Edmond served as its first curator. For forty years he worked to substantially enrich the museum’s collections; by his retirement in 1885, the museum had acquired nearly 11,000 objects.

The Lady and the Unicorn is a series of six tapestries that was woven from wool and silk around the turn of the 15th century. The tapestries are often considered one of the greatest works of art of the Middle Ages. They’re thought to depict the five senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight) as well as a mysterious sixth sense related to the words “à mon seule désir” (to my only desire). Each of the tapestries feature a noble lady, her maidservant, a lion (located at the noble lady’s right side, the audience’s left), a unicorn (located at the noble lady’s left side, the audience’s right), and sometimes a monkey. Other animals include rabbits and foxes.

The tapestry panel for Touch features a lady holding a pennant in one hand as she caresses a unicorn’s horn in the other. (Please forgive instances of poor focusing, it was a dark room and my camera had a scratch on the lens that I was unaware of).

A close-up of the lady.

A close-up of the unicorn.

The pennants in the tapestries feature the arms of the tapestries’ sponsor, possibly Jean Le Viste, a powerful nobleman who served in the court of Charles VII. Another possible sponsor could be Antoine II Le Viste, who served in the court of Charles VII, Louis XII, and Francis I. The drawings that served as a model for the tapestries likely come from the work of a Parisian artist known as the Master of the Très Petities Heures, a Christian devotional book that had been made for Queen Anne of Brittany. The tapestries may have been woven in Paris, although it’s possible they come from (better-reputed) tapestry centres located in the north of France (such as Flanders) and in the southern part of the Netherlands (Brussels).

In Taste, a lady is reaching into a dish of sweets offered up by her maidservant. A hummingbird perches on her hand. A lion (on the left) and a unicorn (on the right) both hold pennants. A monkey is at her feet, eating one of the sweetmeats.

A close-up of the lady.

Another angle.

The tapestries feature the mille-fleurs design (“thousand flowers”), a background style that features many different small flowers and plants (usually on a grassy/green ground). It was a European tapestry style used mainly from 1480-1520. (William Morris re-popularized the style in England in the 19th century). There is no regular pattern to the individual plants; they fill the background without overlapping or connecting. Plants of the medieval forest are featured: hazel, chestnut trees, elder, quince, holly, narcissus, daffodils, and bluebells.

In Smell, the lady is standing while making a wreath of flowers. Her maidservant holds a bowl of flowers at the ready. Again, a lion and a unicorn frame her while holding pennants. A monkey perches on a flower basket in the background, smelling a flower.

Taste is on the left, Smell is on the right.

The tapestries were rediscovered in 1814 in Boussac Castle, which is located about 340 km south of Paris. They were mentioned in 1841 by French writer Prosper Mérimée, who was then the Inspector General of Historic Monuments. French novelist George Sand wrote about them in her serialized novel Jeanne in 1844, bringing them to broader public attention. The tapestries had suffered from damp conditions while in storage, and had contracted mould. Fortunately, they were acquired by the Musée Cluny in 1882 and were carefully restored to nearly their original condition.

In Hearing, the lady plays a small pipe organ. Her lady operates the bellows. The lion and the unicorn appear again (although I’ve unfortunately cropped them a bit in my photograph).

A tighter crop on the lady and her maidservant.

In Sight, the lady is seated and holding up a mirror. A unicorn is seated beside her, his two front legs in her lap. The unicorn gazes at his reflection in the lady’s mirror. A lion appears once again on the left, holding a pennant. (Sorry for the particular lack of focus in this picture, I’m sharing it only because it’s the only full picture I took of this tapestry).

The close-up I took of the lady worked out better.

The sixth tapestry features the words À MON SEULE DÉSIR stitched across the top of a blue tent. The motto has translates as “to my only/sole desire” and has had a variety of interpretations. In the scene, a maidservant holds open a chest of jewels. The lady is shown either placing a necklace inside the chest or taking it out; it is the same necklace she is seen wearing in the other tapestry panels. A dog sits on a decorative pillow on a bench beside her. The lion and the unicorn appear once more, holding pennants in their usual positions. In the other five tapestries, animals are depicted as sharing the sense that is featured (a monkey tastes a sweet, a unicorn sees his reflection). In this tapestry, only the women are engaged with the jewelry. In this tapestry, humans alone seem to value a material object. Is the tapestry presenting a commentary on the human valuation of material goods?

Another angle. Supposedly, only virgin maidens could tempt a unicorn into captivity; otherwise, they were too fast to be caught. Thus, unicorns became a symbol of female chastity and purity (which may explain why unicorns were often depicted as being white).

A close-up on the lady and her necklace.

Another angle.

The room in which the tapestries are displayed also features an exhibit with a so-called “unicorn horn.” In reality, it is a narwhal tusk. Vikings from Greenland were known to harvest narwhal tusks and bring them to market in Europe. Medieval Europeans believed they were the horns of unicorns, and as such they were highly prized by monarchs and the church alike. Unicorn horns were said to have magical properties; they could purify water, or detoxify food that had been poisoned. This particular narwhal tusk was present in the treasury of the Abbey of Saint-Denis as of the beginning of the 16th century, and may have been there even earlier. In the 17th century, the monks of Saint-Denis claimed that this “unicorn horn” had been offered to Charlemagne by the Caliph Harun al-Rashid and that the tip of the horn emitted bubbles when dipped in water.

Let’s move onto some other items in the collection!

Below is a votive cross that was part of the Treasure of Guarrazar, an archaeological discovery that was made in an orchard near Toledo, Spain, in 1858. The find consisted of 26 votive crowns and gold crosses that had been gifted to the Roman Catholic Church by the Kings of the Visigoths, who were living in Spain in the 7th century. This cross, made in the 7th century, contains gold, sapphires, pearl, amethysts, and jasper.

Another votive cross from the same treasure. Dated to the 7th century, it contains gold, sapphires, emeralds, pearls, rock crystals, beads, and amethyst.

Crown “of the canopy of a dove.” From Limoges, a city in central France. From the Treasure of Cherves, discovered in 1896, near the site of a ruined priory of the Grandmont order of monks in Gandory. Dated to the 2nd quarter of the 13th century (1225), made of copper, enamel, print and gilding.

Below are two Gallic torques (Celtic metal necklaces) dated from the 3rd-1st century B.C.E. They would have been too small and rigid for human use, so they could have adorned a statue of a Gallic god: possibly Cernunnos, the Gallic god of nature, virility and fertility. He was often depicted with a torque around his neck and another one in his hand.

This cross-reliquary contained a fragment of what was thought to be the True Cross (the one upon which Christ was crucified). It is dated to the 3rd quarter of the 13th century (1275), and comes from Limousin (a region in France). The form is Byzantium in origin, and features a rich decoration of filigree scrolls and gems.

Below is an imitation reliquary. It was probably made in Prague in the mid-14th century. It was used to fasten the pieces of a ceremonial garment. The luxurious materials suggest that it had imperial use. It features a crowned eagle against the backdrop of flames, the emblem of Bohemia.

The Golden Rose. From Avignon, dated to 1330. Made of gold, silver, and gold-coloured glass.

Below is another cross-reliquary of the True Cross and its case (I have a feeling that a few of these were kicking around medieval Europe). It is dated from the end of the 12th to the beginning of the 13th century, and originates from south-west France. It was found in a Cologne cemetery in 1860.

Below can be found a set of four gemellions, which are basins that were used to wash hands before a meal or during Christian mass. Dated to the 13th century.

A close-up of the gemellion in the top-left of the above picture. This basin comes from Limoges, a city in central France. It features a courtly scene with musicians.

A chalice and plate from Spain, dated to the 15th century.

Below is an aquamanile (a jug or ewer), which contained water for the washing of hands before a meal or during the Christian mass. It comes from Licorne (a region of south-west France), and is dated from the end of the 13th century to the beginning of the 14th century. Made of bronze.

An ink pot case from Italy, 14th century.

Below are some medieval writing utensils. The two items on the left are “pencils” from Paris with “quadrilobe and trilobe heads”, dated to the end of the 14th century. The item second from the right is a “stylet” from Western Europe, middle of the 14th century. The item on the far right is a “pencil” from Paris, dated to the end of the 14th century.

Below is a secular box, made of ivory and golden copper, that features scenes related to courtly love. The scenes on the side of the box illustrate episodes of romance novels, such as Lancelot at the Bridge of the Sword, and Tristan and Yseult at the fountain. On the cover, two knights face off in a tournament joust. Comes from Paris, dated 1300-1310. From the collection of André Baverey.  (I’ve posted just the lid of the box first, because it’s in better focus than the picture I took of the whole thing).

Below is the tombstone of Nicolas Flamel. It comes from the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie in Paris, 1418. Gifted to the museum by the City of Paris in 1845.

The tombstone of Raoul Sarrazin, a knight. Dated to the 1st half of the 13th century. Found in 1854, during the demolition of the commandery of Saint-Jean-de-Latran.

Tombstone of Chatemelle de Flavacourt (died around 1352) and Isabelle Hargelieu (date unknown). From the Ile-de France, middle of the 14th century. Provided by the Church of Flavacourt.

Close-up of the lion in the lower left section of the above tombstone.

Below is a game box dated to the 3rd quarter of the 15th century (1475). It was used for the playing of six different games: tourniquet, tric-trac, merelles, chess, another game that was similar to roulette, and a game called “fox and hens.” The game box was made of ivory, ebony, and stained walnut. Note the playing card located at the bottom right, just below the box. It has a ship printed on it.

I’ve borrowed a better picture of the playing card from the museum’s official website, shown below. The website notes that the ship motif is “quite unusual and does not correspond to the composition of the tarot games, except in Tuscany. The ship floats on the water, the golden sails having a cross drawn by red tiles. The horizon is covered with a gold motif marked with diamonds adorned with quatrefoils. The whole is framed by a red net enhanced with white, while at the bottom is read on two lines a quote from the Latin poet Horace ‘Odi profanum/ volgus and arceo‘ (I hate the vulgar and keep me away from it). This card would be an early witness of the vogue of literary or humanistic games invented in Italian court circles in the Late Middle Ages.”

From the museum’s official website.

The chess pieces.

Below is a mechanical clock from Germany, dated to the 16th century. The mechanical clock was first invented in the 13th century, and used a falling weight and a set of gears to keep track of the time. Few of these early Gothic clocks survive.

A painted table from northern Germany, dated to 1420.

Another angle.

It was hard to get a picture of, but I really liked it!

Are you ready to see some medieval shields, swords, and armour?

Below is a shield from Hungary, dated to the 16th century.

Below is a bulwark shield featuring painted images of David and Goliath. It comes from Bohemia (a region  somewhat near today’s Czech Republic), and is dated to the middle of the 15th century. A bulwark shield such as this one would have been the only type successful at defending against crossbows, and was thus used to protect infantrymen, pikemen, and crossbowmen. This type of large shield would have been used in wars such as Hussite Wars in Bohemia (1419-1434). Gunpowder later made these sorts of shields obsolete in the 16th century.

Another view of the David and Goliath shield. David versus Goliath would have been used as a propaganda image.

A barbute helmet from Italy, dated to 1480-1500. Below the helmet is a shield featuring painted images of feathers and a letter. Comes from Bohemia (?), dated to the end of the 15th century.

Riveted chainmail hauberk, late 15th century. .

A sword, dated to the last quarter of the 13th century (1275).

A sparrow-beaked helmet. Comes from France (?), dated 1380-1400.

Below is a shield with a painted image of Saint George battling a dragon. It comes from Germany, dated to the middle of the 15th century. This is a light but solid shield, usually worn in cavalry but also used by some infantrymen. This shield features the symbols of the municipality of Zwickau (in present-day Germany), and would have been part of an order of equipment passed to the workshops of Chomutov by the city in 1441 for its own garrison. The shield’s central design feature effectively deflected blows while also increasing structural strength. Saint George, a holy protector and knight, combines military vocation with divine protection. A pious motto flanks the scene: “Hilf Got Du Ewiges Wort dem Leibe yesterday, der Seele sleeps Hilf Ritter Georg “, which translates as  “Help God, help, you the eternal Word, the body here, the soul over there, help Knight Gorges.”

Below is a shield featuring a Maltese cross and rosettes. Comes from Germany, end of the 15th century.

Below is a shield decorated with spots. Comes from Hungary, dated to the 16th century.

Sallet-style helmet. From Germany, dated 1520-1530.

The sword on the left is from Italy (possibly Venice?), dated to the end of the 15th century. The sword on the right belonged to a Duke of Milan, 2nd half of the 15th century. Its handle is a stylized fish tail.

Below is an unfinished 1490 combat treatise by Johannes Liechtenauer. It features 358 colour illustrations that represent the fundamentals of armed and unarmed combat. This book established him as one of the first great German fencing masters, and he’s said to have traveled through many lands to study and train others in it. Young princes of high medieval nobility would have found it an essential apprenticeship.

Body armour, shown below. Comes from Italy or France, dated to the start of the 16th century. It is made of steel, textile, and copper.

Below is a buckler, a small shield that would have been gripped in the fist. It comes from Italy or France, dated to the end of the 15th century.

One dagger and two swords, shown below. The top weapon is a dagger from France or Italy, dated to the 14th century. The middle sword comes from France and is dated to the 1st half of the 15th century. The bottom sword is from Germany, dated to the end of the 15th century. The German sword was a two-handed weapon that would have been used for a wide variety of fencing techniques.

The Musée Cluny also features an exceptional collection of medieval stained glass panels, including some that came from Saint-Chapelle!

Below is part of a window from the church of Varennes-Jarcy (maybe originally from the Abbey de Gercy?), a town located 45 km southeast of Paris. Dated to the 2nd quarter of the 13th century (1225).

A heraldic panel from Saint-Chapelle, dated to 1245.

A set of windows depicting St. John, St. James, St. Paul, and St. Peter. Comes from the Chapelle du Chateau, Rouen (?). Dated to 1300.

The panel below shows St. Martin with an angel. It comes from the church of Varennes-Jarcy (originally from the Abbey de Gercy?, and is dated to the 2nd quarter of the 13th century (1250).

The window below shows St. Martin and the Miracle of the Pine Tree. It comes from the church of Varennes-Jarcy (originally from the Abbey de Gercy?), and is dated to the 2nd quarter of the 13th century (1250).

In the window below, Theophilus strikes a deal with a devil. It comes from the church of Varennes-Jarcey (originally from the Abbey de Gercy?), dated to the 2nd quarter of the 13th century (1250).

In the panel below, Job loses his flock. The window comes from Saint-Chapelle. The glass is mostly dated to the 15th century, with some from the 13th century.

A knight kills a king. From Saint-Chapelle, circa 1244.

Samson and the Lion. From Saint-Chapelle, circa 1246.

Salome with John the Baptist’s Head. From Saint-Chapelle, second half of 13th century (1250).

Arms of the Mullenheim family. Comes from Alsace, crafted in the workshop of Peter Hemmel. Dated to 1487.

As mentioned before, the plot of land that the Cluny Abbey purchased for their religious college contained an old building with a Roman bathhouse. Instead of destroying the structure, which might have been expensive, the Abbey incorporated it into the complex that contained the school and the residence for the monks. Today, the remains of this bathhouse (known as the baths of northern Lutetia) is part of the Musée Cluny. All that remains is the frigidarium (the cold room), but it is still an impressive site to check out. The vaulted ceilings are more than 14 metres high!

The bathhouse would have been constructed at the turn of the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E.  With an area of 6,000 metres², it would have been the largest public baths in the Gallo-Roman city of Lutetia.

The museum exhibits some Roman-era artefacts in the frigidarium.

A tiled mosaic.

Statue of Adam, from Notre-Dame. Dated to the middle of the 13th century, carved by Pierre de Montreuil.

One of the highlights of the museum’s collection is the Pillar of the Nautes (Boatmen). It is a monumental Roman-era column that was erected by the guild of boatmen in the 1st century C.E. as an offering to the Roman emperor Tiberius. It is the oldest monument in Paris. It had been repurposed in the 4th century as part of the city wall on the Île-de-la Cité, so unfortunately it now exists as separate blocks (three of which are shown below). The blocks were actually rediscovered in 1711 under the choir of Notre-Dame Cathedral!

A model of what the entire pillar would have looked like before it was split up.

From Wikipedia.

Below is a famous statue that was found in the 19th century. For a long time, it was thought to be a statue of Julian the Apostate, a Roman emperor in the 4th century C.E. who actually resided for a time in Lutetia. Recently, it’s been thought to have been made during the reign of Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century, C.E.

The statues in the photos below once adorned the western façade of Notre-Dame Cathedral. They were part of the Gallery of 28 Biblical Kings, built along with the rest of the façade between 1220-1260. They resided there relatively undisturbed for 550 years. In 1789, the French Revolution broke out as a result of people who (rightfully) opposed the corrupt and exploitative systems of power that were being practiced by the French monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church. Notre-Dame was a monument that had been erected to glorify both of these institutions. Many of the Cathedral’s treasures were stolen or destroyed during this time. Most of the large statues that decorated the exterior of the church were demolished, including the Gallery of 28 Biblical Kings. In October 1793 (the same month that Marie Antoinette was beheaded!) the revolutionaries, believing these were statues of French nobility, beheaded these stone figures in dramatic fashion. They were filled with blood lust and wanted more monarchs to meet the blade—living or stone.

The decapitated heads of the statues.

Their bodies.

The statues were missing until 1977, when 21 of them (plus 300 other fragments) were discovered during work that was being done to enlarge the basement of a Parisian bank. The heads and the other statuary parts had been carefully buried within a wall of plaster three feet below the bank’s courtyard. Most people thought the heads had been thrown in the Seine river. Instead, they had been piled in the street in front of the cathedral. During a clean-up campaign in 1796, the pile of stone and rubbish had been sold to a building contractor. The contractor used the stone and rubbish to build a new mansion for a wealthy lawyer, Jean-Baptiste Lakanal. Lakanal, a devout Catholic, decided to follow the law of the church, which requires the burying or burning of religious items that have been removed from a church. The heads were interred, all facing the same direction.

The restored Gallery of Kings on the western façade of Notre-Dame.

From Pixabay.

The Musée Cluny also features a medieval chapel, built at the same time as the Hôtel de Cluny at the end of the 15th century.

During the French Revolution, the chapel was repurposed as a dissection room for a physician, then as a printing workshop. When the Hôtel de Cluny became a museum in 1843, the chapel was restored.

It has numerous beautiful examples of medieval craftmanship.

Below is another tapestry, entitled “Mathematics.” It’s from a series about the Liberal Arts. It originates from Tournai, Belgium, around 1520.

Dish with vines and bryones (a flowering plant in the cucumber family) decoration. From Manisès, Spain, middle of the 15th century.

Dish with tower-decoration. From Manisès, Spain, second third of the 15th century. The four crowns flanking the central tower could refer to the Kingdoms of Aragon, Castille, Leon, and Sicily, which were united by the marriage of Isabelle and Ferdinand II in 1479.

Plate with orange decoration. From Manisès, Spain, middle of the 15th century.

Spice jars, discovered while excavating the thermal baths of the Musée de Cluny. Possibly from Valencia, Spain. End of 15th-beginning of 16th century.

Shutters. From the southern part of the Netherlands, 16th century. Oak and iron.

Wall frieze with an inscription reading, “Si qua fata sinant” (if destiny allows). The motto of d’Aymon de Montfalcon, Bishop of Lausanne. From Lausanne, end of 16th century.

The Musée de Cluny made for a very intriguing visit. If you are interested in this time period, it’s definitely a stop worth making.


¹Mary Tudor was the youngest surviving sister of Henry VIII, with whom she had a close relationship (he later named his daughter, who would become Mary I, after her). Mary (who was 18) wed Louis XII (who was 52) in October 1514. She was accompanied to France with four ladies-in-waiting, one of whom was Anne Boleyn. However, Louis XII died less than three months later in January 1515 (probably from gout). He was succeeded by his cousin and son-in-law, Francis I. Mary resided at the Hôtel de Cluny while Francis I waited to see if she was pregnant. When it was determined that she was not, Henry VIII sent Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, to Paris to retrieve his sister and bring her back to England. Mary had been in love with Charles prior to her marriage to Louis XII. She had agreed to marry Louis XII on the condition that, if she survived him, she could then marry whom she liked (most likely Charles). However, Henry VIII wanted to make a more advantageous (to him) match for his sister. He made Charles promise that he wouldn’t propose to Mary. Mary convinced Charles to change his mind, and they were secretly wed on March 3, 1515 at the Hôtel de Cluny. This was a gutsy thing to do, as Charles could have been imprisoned or executed for disobeying his king (i.e. treason), and Henry VIII didn’t shy away from executing people who displeased him. Thankfully for the couple, it was early in Henry’s reign before he went full-tyrant and he was inclined to show mercy. Instead, Mary and Charles paid a light fine that is equivalent today to approximately 12.6 million Canadian dollars.

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