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  • Writer's pictureTer Hollmann

A Brief History of the Musée de Cluny in Paris

What is the Musée de Cluny?

Musée de Cluny is a museum in Paris that houses a variety of relics from the Middle Ages, including world-famous tapestries, ornate metalwork, and beautiful stained glass windows.

Musée de Cluny

The five ‘material’ senses of taste, touch, sight, hearing and smell are all celebrated in The Lady and the Unicorn, a set of six tapestries regarded as one of the finest examples of visual art from the Middle Ages. The sixth tapestry is known by the enigmatic motto, ‘À mon seul désir’, or ‘to my only desire’, which is woven into the piece itself, and depicts a woman returning jewels to a casket held by her maid. Although the meaning is somewhat obscure, it has recently been interpreted by scholars as illustrating a sixth sense, love, linked to the soul and the spiritual world. This sequence of tapestries is one of the highlights of a wonderful collection of art and artefacts from the Middle Ages gathered in the Musée de Cluny. If the tapestries seem familiar to you it might be because they adorn the Gryffindor common room in the Harry Potter movies.

Musée de Cluny History

The original structure of the Musée de Cluny was built as far back as 1340, when the Abbot of Cluny, an area in eastern France, acquired the ancient Gallo-Roman thermal baths that had been built there in the 3rd century (these were incorporated into the building and their remains can still be visited to this day). It was subsequently rebuilt in the 15th century by Jacques d’Amboise, another Abbot of Cluny, and in 1832 Alexandre du Sommerard, a famous archaeologist and art collector, bought the building and installed his large collection of works. When Sommerard passed away a decade later, he left his collection to the French state, and the building was declared a historical monument, making it a rare example of surviving civic architecture from Medieval Paris.

Aside from its exceptional collection of tapestries, the museum contains over 23,000 artefacts from Europe, the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world of the Middle Ages. Some pieces date all the way back to the 1st century AD, such as the Boatman’s Pillar, given to the Emperor Tiberius by the boatmen of Paris. The pillar contains both an inscription to the Roman God Jupiter as well as references to several Celtic deities, making it a rare and striking example of the synthesis of the two distinct cultures.

The museum also holds many works from the celebrated gold and enamel workshops of Limoges, a city in south-west France, and a spectacular collection of stained glass with over 200 different pieces from across Europe.

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