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Travel’s Coming of Age – The Middle Ages

When it comes to shopping, savvy shoppers buy wholesale –

Take BOTH your feet and RUN to Paris’ Cluny : The National Museum of the Middle Ages — with a special added surprise — the attached Ancient Roman Baths!


eliminating the “Middle Man.”   When it comes to travel not-so-savvy travelers eliminate the “Middle Ages.”


Travelers are fascinated by the accomplishments of the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans – and then jump a Millennium to the revival of Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman Art and Architecture – aka “The Renaissance.”  They bypass the time when Europe created some of its greatest art and architecture — the Middle Ages.  Yes, the Middle Ages is left in the dark.  In fact, that’s even the name for the early Middle Ages, which started with the Fall of Rome in 476 – “The Dark Age.”   (In fact, I like this period so much that as a child I even called the American Bicentennial in 1776 as “The Millennium and a Half since the Fall of Rome” in 476.)


All the major museums of Western Civilization, such as the British Museum, the Louvre, the Prado, Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches and Dresden’s Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister merely have rooms dedicated to art of the Middle Ages.  It’s hard to believe there are only two major world-class museums devoted exclusively to art of the Middle Ages.  Right in Manhattan, just a few miles from my apartment, is the Cloisters – the Medieval (a synonym for “Middle Ages”) branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art hidden in an obscure out-of-the way park.  The other is Paris’ fantastic Cluny Museum (“Musee de Cluny” in French) right in the heart of Paris – easy to win over your heart. (Okay, a bit corny – my comment — not the museum’s.)


The Cloisters and the Cluny Museums are housed in buildings that evoke the Middle Ages.  While the Cloisters’ cloisters are Medieval French (imported from France and reassembled in NYC), its building is imitation Medieval – Neo Romanesque — from the 1930s.   Whereas Paris’ Cluny Museum is an actual Late Gothic townhouse.  While Paris has many churches from the Middle Ages — it’s very rare to find a secular Gothic manor house – yet even more rare to find it in the center of Paris.


I’ve visited Paris’ National Museum of the Middle Ages, the Cluny Museum, many times over the years well into my middle age.  However, this Fall was my first visit to the new Cluny Museum which was enlarged, renovated and restored, bringing the Middle Ages into the 21st century.  (It opened last May.).


Speaking of the “Middle,” the Cluny’s dramatic reinvention took place right in the middle – the Middle of the Pandemic.  And the Cluny Museum was just one of many new and newly renovated museums that were bravely opened in Paris during the height of the Pandemic:  The Musee Hotel de la Marine, The Musee Bourse de Commerce: Pinault Collection and the Musee Carnavalet.).


Paris also home to the greatest Medieval Architecture — Paris, being home to the world’s greatest museum dedicated to Medieval Art, defines “Apropos” – since Paris is the epicenter of the world’s greatest and most important Medieval Architecture.


In one of many of Paris’ wonderful parks is a famous Medieval dungeon, the 14th-century Chateau de Vincennes, which was built as a royal residence and much later became a prison – where you can still read the graffiti of famous prisoners such as the Marquis de Sade.  (Maybe his internment in the Chateau Vincennes helped turn him into a “Sadist”?)


Just North of Paris is “The Westminster Abbey of France” – The Basilica of St. Denis — the burial place of the Kings and Queens of France that, in itself, is a museum of Medieval sepulchral sculpture. And, to lovers of Gothic Architecture, it’s a building that cannot be missed. In fact, it’s where, in the 1130s, the Abbot Suger first created a chapel with pointed arches and pointed vaults — thereby introducing “Gothic Architecture” to Europe.


Top it off – both the church of St. Denis and the Chateau de Vincennes are only a quick Metro (subway) ride – just minutes from the Cluny Museum in the center of Paris’ Left Bank.”


However, my favorite Medieval building in all Europe isn’t even a subway ride away from Paris.  In fact, it’s almost in the Cluny’s ‘hood – the church of Sainte Chapelle, which redefines “spectacular.”  Along with the Eiffel Tower, Sainte Chapelle is a Paris “Must See” site.  When you ascend Sainte Chapelle’s stairs from the low-ceilinged Gothic chapel on the ground floor – surprise, you are completely enveloped into an unworldly experience opening up before your very eyes totally unlike your experience in any other church in the world!   You are surrounded in a large glass cage of transparent brightly colored stained- glass windows from floor to very high ceiling.  On a sunny day – you just don’t feel as if you’re in a church – you feel as if you are as close as you will ever be — transported in architecture to “Heaven on Earth.”  It is so close to Cluny that Sainte Chapelle’s three life-size stone statues finally made it to the Cluny Museum winding up the first time together at last on display in the new Cluny Museum along with more of its famed, original stained-glass windows.


The Cluny Museum’s art tells the story of more than just the Middle Ages – it tells the story of many ages.  Its collection also highlights the fury of the 188tj century’s French Revolution’s mob to Medieval Art.  The French Revolution just didn’t behead the heads of its Kings and Queens, it also sliced off the heads of statues (of what the mob thought were Kings and Queens of France).  Those beheaded statues once adorned the portal of another nearby church – the world-famous Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.  (Now in the process of its own restoration from its Great 2019 Fire – turning its “Frying Buttresses” back into “Flying Buttresses.”)   Those severed heads, which adorned the portals of Notre Dame, did belong to Kings – the Biblical Kings of Judea, which remained buried until uncovered in 1977.  

And those beheaded “stone heads” are now on view in the most amazing space in the Cluny Museum — which sadly is unknown even to the most sophisticated Parisians — the Gallo-(Ancient) Roman Baths’ Frigidarium.  The most perfectly-preserved Ancient Roman ruins North of the Alps – which can’t really be called “ruins.”


When visiting this Late Gothic manor house, you’re also visiting the perfectly-preserved Frigidarium in a perfectly-preserved Ancient Roman Bath – which makes the Cluny Museum a museum of the “History of Architecture” from Ancient Rome to Gothic to 19th Century to 21st Century.


I hope I’ve seduced you to visit the Cluny Museum on your next trip to Paris – or better yet to visit Paris just to visit the Cluny Museum.  However, I haven’t even yet touched on what’s new in the new Cluny Museum – its first large-scale renovation since it was founded in 1844.


While I find the Cluny Museum the most unique of Paris’ many unique museums, one of the problems was to literally find the museum.  Its location couldn’t be better – on the Boulevard Saint-Michel near the famous intersection with Boulevard Saint-Germain.   Until recently the Cluny Museum was almost hidden from the street.  In fact, until the museum’s enlargement with its spectacular new addition, you almost had to sneak into the museum first, by a door in the surrounding wall, on to the courtyard and then via a single wooden door, entering the Gothic building into a very small and dark vestibule – similar to a “servant’s entrance.”


A Spectacular New Building – the New Visitor’s Center It’s been said that it’s difficult to alter an “Historically Listed” building – (And I just said it, too – actually, I wrote it.)  It’s even more difficult to alter two “Historically Listed” buildings” — Ancient Roman and Gothic.   Putting on a new face – adding an entirely new building to the existing buildings – is the brilliant way the Cluny Museum’s architects acheieved it.  The new building — added to the front — now makes the building visible –and inviting — from the highly trafficked Boulevard Saint-Michel.  

(And here comes the architectural critique from this professor of architecture.)   When viewed from the street, the sensational new addition – the Visitor’s Center’s crowning two gables — blend in perfectly with the gable of the immediately adjoining Ancient Roman Frigidarium.   Now visitors can spend their time viewing the Cluny Museum’s outstanding and expanded collection instead of contemplating where to enter.


The new grand entrance is an architectural magnet, luring passersby into its magnificent new space now capable of handling increased capacity — offering visitors all the amenities expected of a grand 21st-century museum such as coat check (lockers), information desk, boutiques, bookstore, easy access to toilettes and even much easier access for those with limited mobility.


If I haven’t yet whetted your appetite to visit Paris’ “newest” museum, this should whet your appetite. It’s the Cluny Museum’s new café – which during good weather has outdoor seating in the inner courtyard.


Easier Access to Chronologically Arranged Exhibits — And once you’re inside the museum, navigating the collection has become much easier, memorable, and enjoyable.   The Cluny Museum’s exhibits are now arranged in chronological order — a Medieval Time Capsule. The actual sightseeing route has been simplified with more signage and fewer steps.   Saving your feet to see one of my favorite Cluny sites that I really “get a kick out of” — it’s the Gold Reliquary Foot – the remains of someone’s holy foot encased in gold.


A Brighter Experience — While you’re traveling starting from the earliest exhibits with the Dark Ages. The actual exhibit rooms are also emerging from the Dark Ages – literally.   Windows, bricked over since the 19th century, have been opened to let in natural light even more intensified by the addition of skylights — creating a more joyous experience.  You’re seeing art and artifacts of the Middle Ages in a new light – Paris’ light.  And since many of the objects have been restored – the objects themselves also give off a sparkling new light – a shine.  Thereby making a visit to the Cluny Museum a totally new uplifting and enlightening experience.


The church was the center of life in the Middle Ages – so it’s to be expected that the most artifacts associated with a museum of the Middle Ages would be religious from crucifixes to choir stalls to Bishop mitres of which, of course, you’ll find the best examples in the Cluny Museum.   The word “transparency” is very big in the 21st century.  And transparency was also very big in architecture from the Middle Ages in the unique form of glass — stained glass — which is one of the most “colorful” art forms in history, a form that’s unique to the Middle Ages — and the Cluny Museum has some of the most dazzling examples, including stained glass windows from nearby Sainte Chapelle.


The Best in Secular Medieval Art – The Cluny Museum is also a repository of magnificent secular objects used every day in Medieval homes such as elegant, engraved goblets and plates.  Many are in a beautiful, applied enamel — a uniquely French process — Limoges.  The gamut of secular objects includes items from the nursery’s, toys and games to chivalry’s, arms and armor.   


The Piece de Resistance of the Cluny – Tapestries — Exquisitely woven and embroidered wall hangings that tell a story which can be either ecclesiastic or secular — for use in a church or in a manor house.  Like stained glass and reliquaries, tapestries harken back to the Middle Ages.  Medieval Tapestries are to the walls what the Renaissance’s Sistine Chapel is to ceilings.  Especially the tapestry that’s the pride of the Cluny, the world’s most famous tapestry, “The Lady and the Unicorn.”  And the “Lady” is not alone – she’s the centerpiece in a room of tapestries telling the Unicorn’s entire story.


The Lady and the Unicorn must be very special since I didn’t denigrate its description with a (uni)corny joke.  I wonder about one thing – how many people visiting the Cluny Museum want to be amazed and dazzled by the new building and complete renovation with its outstanding collection of Medieval Art?  Or will they visit it because they think it has an American association – “The (George) Clooney Museum?”  

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