Musee de Cluny and Unicorns!

This morning I went to the Musee de Cluny, the museum of the middle ages in France. It was really quite fabulous. The building itself used to be the abbot of Cluny’s home and the basement has the ruins of a Roman frigidarium. The collection is massive with only a small portion on display. The highlight is the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, and rightfully so. This set of 6 tapestries has 5 that each represent one of the senses and a 6th that has been interpreted a wide variety of ways. Each tapestries has a red background and depicts the woman, the unicorn and a variety of animals taking actions that illustrate the sense. For example, for sight she holds a mirror for the unicorn to look into. They are notable for the number of animals scattered about as well as their state of preservation. Then we come to the 6th tapestry, larger than the others and full of questions.

This tapestry depicts the maiden giving up her jewels. Across the top of the tent is written a phrase translated in various ways, one of the most popular being “by my will alone.” It is possible that this 6th tapestry represents the Lady choosing free will over the other 5 senses.

In this tapestry we see the Lady placing her jewels in the chest or she is putting them on? Most interpret it as her taking them off. Okay, so what do they represent? Above her is written A Mon Seul Desir, which according to the exhibit (still don’t speak French) means a variety of things and no one agrees. By my will alone or My one desire seem to be the popular ones. In any case, does this represent a 6th sense of understanding? In that case is she giving up the other senses in exchange for understanding? Or perhaps the tapestry represents virginity or love. This is in line with the medieval love of the unicorn as a symbol because the unicorn was a multi-purpose symbol, symbolizing Christ, virginity, and purity in some contexts, but also adultery and passion in others. There may have been many ways to interpret this tapestry when it was made and that might be the way the creators and the commissioner liked it.

He is just so cute! Can I have one please? Pretty please?

Other highlights of this museum were the Croatian special exhibit in honor of Croatia’s 2013 entry into the EU (which was also celebrated at the Musee de Rodin, perhaps it is a theme?), the heads of kings from the Notre-Dame facade, a collection of pilgrim’s medals, and a 23 episode tapestry depicting St. Stephen’s life and the events of his body after his death. It was really interesting to read about how Croatia was very much part of Europe for a good chunk of history. They had a very wide range of reliquaries on display. Croatia was apparently particularly known for their fine reliquaries in the shapes of the body part stored inside, including the one below for a skullcap.

This reliquary is for a saint’s skullcap, note the hole in the top so you can see the skull! Nothing like the sight of a saint’s skull to revive the spirits. In all seriousness though, the collection was awesome.

Another fun thing was the pillar of sailors in the Roman part of the museum. The pillar is now largely in chunks, but surviving bits show that syncretism with the local gods did happen.

This part of the pillar of Sailors demonstrates how the Romans allowed syncretism to happen. This god is not from their pantheon, but appears on the same pillar with Roman gods in a favorable light.

This museum was really fabulous with a good audioguide and pretty good signage. I even ended up being recruited by a security guard to take a picture for another visitor after the security guard had some problems. The other woman spoke to me in French and I smiled and nodded, but it transpired that she was from Argentina and very happy to learn I spoke Spanish. The picture taking went much better after that.

They did have some military things at the end. I will even put a picture up of the cool illustrated combat-learning book.

This book was illustrated to teach someone how to fight, including duels and things. This picture is just for my war-minded friends.


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