Middle Ages today – A look into the newly reopened Musée de Cluny
Mateusz Fafinski (ORCID 0000-0003-1637-8174)
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s long, dark look into the abyss of the American soul and into the intricacies of whaling way beyond average reader’s patience, the main protagonist’s inner life is explained through a metaphor of a medieval building standing on top of Roman ruins.
Winding far down from within the very heart of this spiked Hôtel de Cluny where we here stand—however grand and wonderful, now quit it;—and take your way, ye nobler, sadder souls, to those vast Roman halls of Thermes; where far beneath the fantastic towers of man’s upper earth, his root of grandeur, his whole awful essence sits in bearded state; an antique buried beneath antiquities, and throned on torsoes!
Herman Melville, when he visited Paris in 1849, was fascinated by this lofty, late medieval building and the Roman ruins beneath it – the last remains of a vast complex of Roman baths. For him, they explained something about the human soul. Now, for us, they tell something about the soul of the city and the Middle Ages itself. When Melville visited, the Hôtel de Cluny was already a museum hosting a collection of the French antiquarian Alexande Du Sommerard. The French state, keen to control the presentation of what if thought of as its own past, bought the collection and opened it as a state-run museum in 1843. Placed in a magnificent mansion built by Jacques d’Amboise, abbot of Cluny at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, it was a perfect place to harness the power of the medieval past. Built just next to (and partly above) the complex of the Roman baths of Lutetia, it originally hosted both medieval and renaissance artworks and even some early modern and prehistoric objects. But since the 1970s, it is the only national museum of the Middle Ages in the world – Musée national du Moyen Âge. After an extensive set of renovations, which saw it closed from September 2020 until the 12th of May 2022, when it reopened in its latest incarnation, we can visit it again. The result is a striking reinterpretation of the Middle Ages and of the urban tissue of Paris itself.
There is something of a genius loci in placing a museum of the Middle Ages in a place like this. Perhaps the first and most important reason that comes to mind is that it dissolves the sharp borders of the medieval period. You might be thinking that the museum might start with a room full of late antique artifacts; but if you instead take a sharp turn left just after you enter and descend the steps, you will find yourself in the Frigidarium of the Roman baths. While antiquity and late antiquity (steadfastly labelled as the Early Middle Ages) are not sharply divided, there is a difference in levels, an almost permeable membrane between them. The late antique collections in the second room (which include the stunning Visigothic crowns from Guarrazar) are not, as is so often the case, left in isolation. Instead, the centrepiece of the room is the golden antepedium from Basel, made in the 11th century, which in its form reminds us almost of a carved marble late antique sarcophagus. This kind of outside-of-the-box presentation makes for a thought provoking introduction to an epoch that is so difficult to define. Right at the beginning, we are confronted with the question: When do the Middle Ages actually start? In the Frigidarium we are still in antiquity, in the second room we are somewhere else. These two are not apart, but they are also not simply put together.
There is a point, between rooms five and six, when Roman masonry almost seamlessly gives way to the late medieval one, and we leave the areal of the baths for the rooms of the mansion of the abbots. There are few such places – the cathedral of Trier, the arena of Arles – where you can actually see this. To observe it up close, literally a couple centimetres from your face, is a unique opportunity. The museum curators saw it as well and they draw your attention to it. This is a clever way of incorporating the actual buildings of the museum into the exhibition, the urban fabric in which the museum finds itself into the story it tries to tell.
In the high and late medieval part we lose, to an extent, this conversation with the building itself – it becomes more of a backstage, with one grand exception. The chapel of the Hôtel de Cluny itself has been kept without additional objects, a space for itself. Some clever sensory experiences await the visitors here. The temperature drops, making our bodies immediately keenly aware that we are in a different kind of space. The stones, unheated, and the furnishings, wooden, emit that smell we so keenly associate with churches and chapels. Combined with the flawlessly restored interior the chapel is a statement in itself – both a space and an object. Minimalistic, sensory, off the main track of the museum, architecturally medieval but preparing us for the end of an epoch. In that it constitutes a curatorial counterpart to the frigidarium by making us think about closure. And the inevitable culmination of the exhibition – the room with the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, the Huizingian last movement of the whole medieval collection here. The tapestries, made around the year 1500, depict the five senses in an allegorical manner and a mysterious sixth scene, titled “My only desire”, which has perplexed scholars for decades. It is a fitting end to a path through a museum of the Middle Ages – a mystery note and with six objects that belong to the transistory phase of the epoch.
In many ways then the newly renovated Musée de Cluny is a success. The objects have gained a chronological context while still being roughly grouped by their medium. Through the clever use of the architectural fabric the museum itself is a critical commentary on what is ‘medieval’ and what are the Middle Ages. As the core of the collection still contains the objects gathered by Alexandre Du Sommerard and his son, Edmond (who was the first director of the museum proper from 1843 onwards and acquired, among others, the Unicorn tapestries), the Musée de Cluny remains also a powerful commentary on how the Middle Ages were conceived in the 19th century. As mentioned, the collection originally included Renaissance objects as well, now removed to the Musée national de la Renaissance – Château d’Écouen (with some objects in the Louvre as well). This means, for example, that we will find very few Italian works on display as they, even if contemporary to many objects in Musée de Cluny, were seen firmly as Renaissance works. These silences help us reconstruct and ponder how the Middle Ages remain a constantly negotiated epoch, where space and time (and their rhythms) are repeatedly rearranged to provide a new interpretation.
This is still the Musée national du Moyen Âge and as such it presents also a political claim – a claim to the Middle Ages as a constitutent part of the French national identity. All museums are political projects, but a national museum of the Middle Ages in France perhaps even more so. The battle over the claim to the “medieval” between the French and the German states fought precisely at the time when the museum was created still can be faintly heard in the distance as we stroll through the rooms. By now, at least, the barbarians have been taken into scare quotes in the labels. The politics of today are also not absent. Our delight at the antique and medieval interiors and the amazing objects in the collection is not so simple. The restoration has been financed partly through the proceeds from Louvre Abu Dhabi and as such remains entangled in the world of modern heritage politics and, more broadly, French foreign policy and interests.
We will find few considerations of the Afroeurasian context of the collection although important non-Western objects are on display, like some absolutely stunning Coptic fabrics. That is a chance for the future – especially to highlight materials coming from outside of the European West that are to be found in many of the objects in the collection. The ivory, the garnets, the gold deserve their own story. That being said, the museum’s website provides some interesting interpetative texts about East and West in the Middle Ages. Speaking of the website, the internet presence of the museum is a worthy companion to the brick and mortar of the building itself. The collection is well contextualised with plenty of illustrative material and some interesting commentary. Not to forget the great Twitter account of the museum’s team, @museecluny, which is informative but with a light touch. Medieval collections need more internet presences like this. The museum is also friendly to researchers. Photography is allowed and most objects (as much as it is possible to do so for practical reasons) are displayed in light and angle that makes it easy to snap quick documentation. All the rooms are fully accessible thanks to ramps and lifts – no small issue nowadays.
With its new incarnation, the Musée de Cluny also opened up a bit towards the city itself. After all, the mansion of the abbots of Cluny is one of the gems of Parisian urban archtecture of the late Middle Ages and the baths are the most important Roman civic monument of the French capital. Perhaps more could be made in the collection about what this ensemble tells us about Paris itself today and how the city is still, at its core, structured through its extraordinary medieval growth – but also its late antique role.
Is the Musée de Cluny still a place to understand something about the human soul, as it was for Melville? Perhaps. It does, after all, tell a story of millions of people that lived with and made the objects hosted in it. But even more than that, it tells us something about the understanding of the medieval, and what it means for us today, for cities like Paris, and for the role of culture in society. In the room devoted to daily life there is a stunning 14th century ivory mirror case, on loan from the Louvre. It has a mirror inserted, a dark, opaque one – but it is a modern replacement. Perhaps the greatest take-away from the newly renovated Musée de Cluny is then that we continue to make the Middle Ages as we go along – even today.
Dr. Mateusz Fafinski is a medieval historian and a digital humanist. His research focuses on the interface of medieval and digital history and the adaptation of societies in the first millennium. He joined the UrbRel group in December 2022.
Lepape, Séverine, ‘Musée de Cluny-Musée National du Moyen Âge : Une réouverture attendue”’, Revue des Musées de France – Revue du Louvre, 4 (2022), 8–12
Taburet-Delahaye, Élisabeth and others, Musée de Cluny: Architectures (Paris: RMN-Grand Palais, 2022)
Thermes et Hôtel de Cluny, Musée National Du Moyen Âge: Œuvres Nouvelles, 1995-2005: Paris, Musée National Du Moyen Âge – Thermes et Hôtel de Cluny, 10 Mai-25 Septembre 2006, ed. by Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux : Musée national du Moyen Âge – Thermes et Hôtel de Cluny, 2006)
All images by Mateusz Fafinski