March 31, 2014

The "New" Lady and the Unicorn @ The Cluny

One of my favorite small museums in Paris is the Musée National du Moyen Age, often referred to as the Musée de Cluny.  Located in the 5th Arrondissement, the museum is housed in a 15th century Gothic mansion, the townhouse for the abbots of Cluny, that was built on the site of 3rd century Roman baths.  The townhouse, or hôtel, served various functions over the years including a religious college, an observatory and a physician's dissection room, but in 1833 it was purchased by Alexandre du Sommerard who used the space to display his collection of medieval and Renaissance art and objects.  After du Sommerand's death, the house and its contents were acquired by the French state who opened it as a museum in 1843.

Today a visit to the Cluny is a trip back to the Middle Ages and beyond.  Visitors enter through the cobblestoned Court of Honor with its distinctly Gothic decoration and once inside pass through galleries displaying medieval treasures from statuary to reliquaries to stained glass windows.  A short detour takes one to the ruins of the Gallo Roman baths including the frigidarium (cooling room) with its amazing vaulted ceiling.

But the real star of the show at this museum is upstairs where The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are on display.  Probably woven in Flanders in the 16th century, the group of six hangings was only recently returned to public view after a two year cleaning and restoration project.  I had visited The Cluny and these tapestries several times over the years and was anxious to see how they looked now in their refurbished state.  They were magnificent.

No one really knows the early history or the true meaning of these tapestries - they are not mentioned in any records until 1814 when they were discovered in the Château de Boussac in Creuse, and then again in 1841 when they were mentioned by the French writer Prosper Mérimée (most famous for the novel "Carmen") in a letter to politician Ludovic Vitet.  At this time they were in terrible condition, damaged by damp, rats and humans who cut off pieces to use as rugs.  In 1882 they were acquired by The Cluny and soon became the centerpiece of their collection.

The group of six silk and wool woven tapestries are considered one of the finest examples of art from the Middle Ages in Europe.  Each work features a mille fleurs pattern on a red background with various animals such as fox, rabbits, birds and monkeys and four varieties of trees including oak, holly, orange and pine.  Each work also bears a coat of arms that has recently been identified as that of  Jean la Viste, a nobleman in court of King Charles VII.  And each work features a beautiful, but mysterious, blonde woman with a unicorn to her left and and lion to her right.

It is generally agreed upon that five of the tapestries represent the senses - taste, sight, hearing, touch and smell - but the sixth is still an enigma.  It bears the motto "A Mon Seul Désir" which has been variously interpreted as "To my only desire, "my sole desire", "by my will alone" and "to calm passion".  It is in a slightly different format from the others and is the only tapestry in which the lady seems to smile.  But why is she smiling?  Some claim that the lady putting the necklace into the chest is a renunciation of passions aroused by the other senses, others see it as an expression of love or virginity.  We will probably never know the exact meaning of the phrase of the or the identity of the central figure, but it is this conundrum that makes it so fascinating.   The Lady and the Unicorn has entranced viewers for centuries - a sort of Flemish Mona Lisa!

After three weeks in Europe it is time to head back home.  It has been a wonderful trip but there are plenty of things to look forward to in New York at this time of year.  I leave you with this view of the Seine, where Spring is definitely in the air even if the chestnuts are not quite yet in blossom!  Au revoir!

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