The Musée national du Moyen Âge, or Musée de Cluny, is located in the Hôtel de Cluny. The first establishment was constructed by Pierre de Chaslus after the acquisition of the ancient baths by the Cluniac Monastic Order in 1340. The selection of artifacts masterfully reflects the historical and metaphysical transformation of France. The weighted sense of socio-political, religious, and cultural obligations are complemented by the solemnity and relative darkness of the majority of the exhibition spaces. The wealth of artistic production including illuminated manuscripts, shields of armor, intricately woven tapestries, vibrantly stained-glass windows, reliquaries, and sculpture are all intimately bound to the Hexagone’s complex history involving war, conflict, religion, trade, society, and culture.
The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries (c. 1500) from the Château de Boissac were acquired in 1882, and are an example, par excellence, of medieval artistic production. The ensemble is comprised of a series of six wool and silk tapestries which reflect the beauty and charm of the mythical unicorn. Five of the six panels feature a representation of the five senses. However, the sixth panel, entitled “To My Only Desire,” is thought to evoke the sixth sense – the spiritual and moral center. The coat of arms with three crescents belongs to the Le Visite family. Although the subject is different in each, the content remains the same. Each tapestry has a deep pink background filled with delicately sprawling flowers, abundant fruit trees, and various animals including rabbits, goats, monkeys, and lions. The activity between the Lady, the unicorns, and the animals always remains in the center of the tapestry, anchored by a lush green, oval zone.
The present town house was constructed during the second half of the 15th century. It was completed during the first half of the 16th century by the Jacques d’Amboise abbacy and follows a temporal construction: baths, medieval town house, and Couvent des Mathurins. Due to the unique implementation of the ancient Roman technique known as opus vittatum mixtum, the Hôtel de Cluny remains architecturally sound. Subsequent restoration and modifications were undertaken by Albert Lenoir (1801-1891) in the 19th century in order to help preserve the establishment. He had presented a project to create a historical museum that united the Palais des Thermes and the Hôtel de Cluny in 1832, with collections displayed in the buildings that housed them: antiquity in the frigidarium, Middle Ages in the Hôtel de Cluny, and subsequent periods in buildings adjacent to the Couvent des Mathurins. However, the destruction of these buildings in 1860 prevented the project from being realized.
The Musée de Cluny was conceived in the 19th century by Alexandre du Sommerard (1779-1842), magistrate at the Cour des Comptes (Court of Audit) and passionate art collector. At the end of his life, he had amassed an inventory of 1,434 objects. In 1834 he mused, “In 1832 the imagination of an art lover, who had long collected objets d’art from eras corresponding to that of the construction of the town house, gave him the idea of enhancing his collection with the harmony of the setting,” (Musée du Cluny: A Guide, p. 11). The Musée de Cluny opened in 1844 under the supervision of the Commission des Monuments Historiques with Alexandre du Sommerard’s son, Edmond, acting as its first director.
During his directorship, Edmond Sommerard made significant acquisitions, including the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries (c. 1500), the Golden Rose (1330) by Sienese goldsmith Minucchio da Siena, the religious twenty-three scene Tapestry of Saint Stephen (c. 1500) which recounts the life of Saint Stephen and the movement of his relics from Jerusalem to Constantinople; and the hanging votive Guarrazar Crowns from Visigoth Spain (7th century). He also wrote the first museum catalogue which was successfully published and redistributed several times. Presently, the museum houses a vast collection of pieces spanning the ages: Antiquity, Romanesque art, Limoges work, Gothic art, and art from 15th century can all be found in the archives of the current establishment. However, due to the physical limitations of space, the Museum has had to reconfigure and re-conceptualize its collection. After World War II, Francis Salet and Pierre Valet limited its displays to thematically organized medieval works of art.
Sources: Musée du Cluny, Musée national du Moyen Âge: A Guide. Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris (2009).