Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Musee du Moyen Age

Between two Unicorns.

From Stirling to Paris we were literally between two Unicorn suites, the re woven Hunt pageant and the sublimely beautiful Lady.

On a beautiful morning we caught the train to Chatelet and then walked across the wide Pont au Change to our destination, the Musee du Moyen Age on the Boulevard St. Michel. Why is it that the sky seems so much higher in Paris? And why do you always see that perfect, spirit lifting bank of puff ball clouds scattered across the blue as you cross the Seine to the Left Bank?

 View from the Pont au Change towards the Conciergerie

The Musee is structurally the most fascinating accretion of history, from the original Gallo Roman baths dating from 200 AD to the 15th century Hotel de Cluny, its flamboyant Gothic features preserved and restored in the 19th century. It was home to Alexandre du Sommerand from 1833 to 1842, and here he assembled a Mediaeval collection that was purchased upon his death by the State along with the building itself. The treasures that we see today sprang from this embryo, and have been added to over the years through donations and legacies as well as important acquisitions such as the La Dame a la Licorne tapestries in 1882.

Views of the Musee from the courtyard

Evoking the five senses, Sight, Hearing, Taste, Smell, Touch and a sixth entitled A mon Seul Desir, bearing the Coat of Arms of Jean le Viste, the La Dame la Licorne suite originally graced the walls of the castle at Boussac. It was discovered there in a deteriorated state by Prosper Merimee and Georges Sand in the 1840s, and their efforts played a part in the recovery and subsequent recognition and repatriation of the tapestries as major works of art. Believed to be woven as a wedding gift for the family of Jean le Viste in the 1500s, we are still charmed by the enchanting animals and flowers, the spaciousness and balance of the composition, and the supreme labour manifest in this extraordinary expression of love.


Entering the low light of the oval room that houses the famous suite is magical, the magnificence of their glowing presence permeating all. We studied at length the details of superbly refined and exquisite weaving, surely the high point of expression in this medium. Within the sensuality of the flowering garden and the "millefleurs" background the five senses are represented as -

Sight - the lady gazes at the unicorn and holds a mirror in which he observes his own reflection.

Hearing - the lady plays a small portable organ while the maidservant works the bellows.

Taste - the lady picks a sweet out of a golden dish to feed to the parrot perched on her left hand.

Smell - the lady makes a crown of carnations, inhaling their scent while the monkey sniffs a rose from her basket.

Touch - the lady holds an emblazoned banner in her right hand and caresses the unicorn's horn with her left.

A Mon Seul Desir - the lady is either taking or replacing a necklace from a box of jewels. The "sixth sense" illustrated the tapestry could be interpreted as intelligence, wisdom or the "spiritual heart" that governs the five others.

One of the interesting things we discovered on this visit concerned the state of the re woven borders added as restoration in the late 19th century. I had always wondered why these ostensibly newer additions were more faded than the originals. And the answer? The yarn was dyed with chemical dyes as opposed to the natural ones used in the 15th century that have retained their vibrant colour. 

After taking our fill of these wonderful works we moved slowly on through the wealth of small rooms richly decorated with contemporaneous suites of tapestries including The story of St. Stephen, The story of St. Peter, The Offering of the Heart and Aristocratic Life. As well as the tapestries the Musee houses an abundance of Mediaeval craftsmanship - enamel and metalwork, ivories, stained glass, embroidery and sculpture dating from the fifth century.

Manorial Life

Ceiling of the Chapel

We lunched in a brasserie across the road and then made our way back to view the garden, bounded by the boulevards St. Germain and St.Michel.  Opened in 2000, the garden is designed to resonate with the Musee collection and provide respite from the busy contemporary world that surrounds it. Drawing inspiration from the treasures within, it includes medicinal plants, a celestial garden where flowers such as lilies and irises symbolise the Virgin Mary, and a garden of love reflecting courtly pastimes. A "millefleurs" flowerbed directly references the wonderfully complex floral background motifs of the tapestries.


Views of the garden and back of the Musee


  1. Thanks for the posts Cresside, it is bringing back so many wonderful memories. And I met one of you ladies this last weekend and she RAVED about the trip. Congratulations.

  2. Beautiful Images... really it bring back so many wonderful memories.

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