Thursday, July 10, 2008

Musée National du Moyen Âge

The Museum of the Middle Ages incorporates two ancient structures: the Gallo-Roman baths (1st-3rd centuries) and a mansion built by the Cluny Abbots (late 15th century), located in the vicinity of the Sorbonne. The complex is surrounded by several themed medieval gardens of vegetable, medicinal and floral varieties. The residence, whose façade remains unaltered since its construction in 1485, encircles a courtyard that is separated from the street by a crenelated wall. The mansion maintains its original layout, including three stone spiral staircases and a chapel. Significantly, the dimensions and layout of the rooms have not been altered over time.

In 1833 Alexandre du Sommerard purchased the former abbot’s residence and installed his collection of medieval and Renaissance art throughout the mansion. Displayed were important textiles, stained glass, jewelry, crowns, sculptures, paintings, books and furnishings. Upon his death the collection was purchased by the state and opened as a museum in 1843, with his son Edmond as the first curator. Edmond oversaw the purchase of perhaps the most famous items on view, the series of six textiles know as the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, woven in Flanders in the late 15th century. Five of them illustrate the senses (sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing); the sixth is titled “To My Only Desire.” They have been displayed here since 1882.

Historical note: In 1515 the mansion became the home of Mary Tudor, widow of French King Louis XII, who died after just three months of marriage. Mary, now the dowager queen, was installed here by Francois I (the new king) to be isolated from all other men for six weeks to see if she was pregnant and, if so, to ensure it was her former husband's child. Later, in the mansion's small chapel, Mary Tudor did the unimaginable for a princess – she married the man she chose, Charles Brandon (Duke of Suffolk), much to the annoyance of her brother, Henry VIII.

Chapel Ceiling

Adjacent to the mansion are ruins from 3rd-century Roman thermal baths, known as the Thermes de Cluny. Pictured here is one of the rooms in the the frigidarium (cold water room), the best preserved room, with intact architectural elements such as Gallo-Roman vaults, ribs and consoles and fragments of original decorative wall painting and mosaics. The caldarium (hot water room) and the tepidarium (warm water room) are both still present as ruins outside the museum itself, within the museum's grounds.

Musée National du Moyen Âge
6, place Paul Painlevé
Open from 9:15a to 5:45p; admission 7,50€
Closed Tuesdays, January 1, May 1 and December 25
Métro: Cluny-La Sorbonne

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