Since Christmas is a time for families, and since my sister and my niece were not with us this year, my mother and I made a slightly late-in-the day, slightly haphazard and snap decision to go to Paris for 5 days, setting off the morning after Stephen’s Day.
I am not going to pretend it was the easiest holiday of my life, the crowds were crazy, the queues mad, the weather mixed, navigation difficult, and the city, as always, is on the expensive side. It is the most visited city in the world by tourists i believe, and this Christmas/New Year break sees a huge spike in visitor numbers. There are, there were, quite literally, millions of extra people everywhere cloggging up the city. Inching forward slowly along the queues at major sights -as the M. D’Orsay, or Sainte Chapel say – can be tedious, up to an hour in the cold. True, you can pre-book some of the blockbuster sights like the Louvre and the D’orsay. But of course, even when you do get inside, you stiill have to deal with the same fellow-tourists, milling around inside, blocking your view of everything. But. of course, one thing you do always get with Paris; well, you get to see lots of very old, interesting and beautiful things. Here are a few for you to enjoy.
Let me just present you with a few pictures of the highlight of our first full day,
This, undoubtedly, was the wonderful the Musée Cluny, also called the Musée du Moyen Age. (meaning the Museum of the Middles Ages of course). It is located, aptly enough, in a very splendid, indeed spectacular medieval Religious House, specifically in the former Paris headquarters of the wealthy, powerful, and highly influential Benedictine Order, one of the defining institutions of medieval Europe.
The museum (which I’ll call M de Cluny for short) is interesting therefore, because as you walk around the wonderful exhibits of medieval, Romanesque & Gothic artifacts, collected over many many decades from all around France, you do so in the frame and space of medevel architecture. Or, in other words, the building is as much of a star as the collection.
above: Flamboyant. High Gothic vaunted ceiling. M. de Cluny.
France has the best medieval heritage in Europe, which means the M. de Cluny is probably the best museum of its kind, its period, in the world. France of course, was the first consolidated Nation states in Europe, with an extremely powerful, centralsed monarchy, rich farming and trade, a wealthy aristocracy and even wealthier and more powerful church institutions. All this wealthy patronage therefore allowed early medievel France to rapidly develop a scholastic, intellectual and artistic culture fully commensurate with its status as the preeminent Europe nation. The evidence is everywhere you look. Talk a walk around the old heart of Paris, into the cathedral or any of the older central churches, and one sees an extraordinary, stunning, level of sculpture, painting, architecture and decorative arts.
Time and time again in the museum, and indeed throughout our Paris trip, I was struck by just how dam good everything was.
Here are some bits from the museum, to illustrate the point. (All photos bar one, by this author, please credit my work if you reproduce it for general recreational or educational use. Never use for commercial use without my express, written permission)
Madonna, Child and Saints in relief, alabaster. M. de Cluny.
Christ in Majesty; wood panel, later piece. M. de Cluny.
Above: another panel from the same altar piece. In both the two pictures above, the little wooden figures are much smaller than they may appear here, barely the height of a man’s hand. So the level of skill to carve and paint them so finely was, well pretty dazzling I thought.
I was struck by the “modernity” of these lines, above.
Above: French kings were powerful enough, pious enough, and had enough clout, that several were canonized soon after their death.
above: My lousy picture of perhaps the most famous highlight of the M de Cluny, the lovely series of Tapestries called Lady and the Unicorn. (the light in this gallery is kept low to protect the precious fabric) This is a lovely, complex, enigmatic work of medieval allegory, its symbolism most likely concerns ideas about earthly senses, verus our spiritual side and our notion of heaven and the sublime.
In fact, these tapestries are such an important piece, and my photograph is so bad, that I’m going to borrow a picture from elsewhere to show the the sheer beauty of tese tapestries, justly famed around the world. They were made famous when the great writer Georges Sand wrote about them. Even if we do not know of them directly, there is little doubt they are one of the things that has influenced our modern notions of high medieval aristocratic culture, its strange fusion of sensual and spiritual concerns, its manners and its mores and it’s sense of courtly grace. Here is my borrowed image now:
These stunning tapestries, and all of the other wonderful artifacts in the M. de Cluny, were wonderful to behold. But another great aspect of our visit to the museum was that it also led me to question some lazy assumptions I’d long held about Medieval art. Indeed, question my ideas about medieval thought and culture in general. This sounds a bit vague I realize. Let me try and explain what i mean…
I studied art history and still teach it as a subject to secondary students. Like most Art History undergraduates, a lot of our course was concerned with Greek and Roman art, early, then mid, then late Italian Renaissance art (from Venice to Florence to Rome and Naples) and with Northern European art, (German, N. French, Dutch and Flemish) of the same 200-year period. I recall we also studied in excellent detail, Spanish Art, French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art, early Modernism, (in both art and architecture, everything from Bauhaus to Mark Rothko) and 19th century art and applied arts, especially French, German and British. That was a very good course, and my tutors and lecturers were all excellent. (My personal tutor C. Robertson, had a hand advising on the restoration of the Sistine Chapel and another lecturer was editor of the definitive C.L.B.R series (on the Flemish giant Peter Paul. Rubens.) In other words, it was a very good Art History department at Oxford Brooks. I was lucky enough to receive a very good grounding in Art History, that most rewarding of subjects. However- and this is nobody’s fault but my own- I don’t recall studying much medieval art. Hardly any in fact. I barely knew what i was missing.
Whether I studied it or not however, I did build up the lazy idea that medieval European culture was essentially bound up with religion. In other words, dominated by the church and their stranglehold on learning and ideas, a “God-bounded era, an anti-science, anti-human, age, utterly preoccupied with faith, and mystery and devotion. The idea that man was weak and insignificant, life on this earth was short and squalid and that man’s conduct on this sin-infested planet should be mainly occupied with prayer to help gain access to the far more important, and much longer (okay, infinite) afterlife, in heaven, a paradise, united with our savior.
Then, (the received narrative goes..) in the Renaissance, classical knowledge was rediscovered, revived and further developed, while new humanist philosophy placed man centre stage. This new philosophy was played out and reflected in poetry, literature, music, science and- perhaps most spectacularly in architecture and the visual arts. Our new (scientific) understanding of vision and of optics, for example, was reflected in most mathematical perspective in painting (Paulo Ucello et al) or in painters’ use of atmospheric perspective (de Vinci etc) Likewise, our new (scientific) understanding of the human body, for example, was reflected in better (artistic) depictions of that body, better anatomy, more realistic, more dynamic figures, think of contraposto, meaning of course the shifting turning weight of the human body in movement and in action.
All of this was Progress, a triumph of sorts, a triumph of the spirit and the ingenuity of man. Does all this sound very familiar? Thought so.
Now consider and compare these two photographs I snapped in the M. de Cluny last Friday. Exhibit 1-
Here is a fairly “typical’ piece of medieval sculpture. Shallow “bas” carved relief, on marble, limestone, alabaster or whatever it was. As you see, it depicts a man and a woman, perhaps they are courting, perhaps they are already man and wife. This may have been from a sarcophagus, in which case they would certainly be man and wife, but I don’t think it was. Either way, the piece has that distinctive, unmistakable loveliness we we associate with medieval art, not clumsy exactly, the carving in fact is very skillful and accomplished, yet nonetheless the medieval sculptor does not have the same skills, knowledge and techniques that Renaissance sculptors will exhibit 300 years later. True, her face is lovely, ineffably sweet, but although she is slim and gracious, look at the way the figures are rooted to the ground, slightly stiff, how they lack dynamism and movement. Even the folds of drapery are stiff, none of the cascading, free-flowing virtuosity of later, Renaissance art. In short, a lovely, lively yet highly characteristic piece of medieval sculpture. It is actually very good. It puts me in mind of Giotto. Solid but never stolid, with its keen observation of individuals, of relationships, of presence and of gesture.
Now, exhibit 2.
Look at this- Because, believe it or not, this sculpture/statue, of Adam was made in or very near to the year 1260. Yep, around 1260… in medieval Paris.
I know, amazing. This piece of sculpture dates from exactly the same period as the man and the woman. It is not that it is “better” in any way. But it is most certainly very, very different. Because you’ll see straightaway that this single piece of sculpture refutes, contradicts and essentially disproves everything i said earlier about medieval, versus Renaissance, knowledge: of classical art, of anatomy, of technique. It also contradicts and essentially disproves everything I said earlier about medieval, versus Renaissance philosophy, culture, understanding, world-view and sensibility.
Finally, (as if all that were not enough) look at the pose, the way most of the weight is shifted onto one foot, the way the body is clearly hinged and bending at the waist, (very different from the slightly stiff, upright statues of general medieval sculpture) and the way the torso gently twists on the vertical axis.
So this statue, from c. 1260, demonstrates, at a stroke, that at least some medieval patrons and artists were keenly aware of the achievements, and artistic knowledge and techniques of the classical (Greek and Roman) Era, and that at least some around this time already understood, or had rediscovered the classical love of) the twisting body, that dynamic potential, for contraposto, over two hundred years before, say, Michelangelo was even born. (in March, 1475)
So, if, like me, you were brought up with that traditional view of the development of art history outlined above, this statue is, to say the least, a bit of an eye-opener. It appears well “before its time” to put it mildly.
Anyway, this was the thing that struck me most forcefully, among all the lovely splendors of the M. de Cluny, so I thought it might interest you to see it
As I said at the top of this piece, I still feel we should all avoid Paris at peak times, Xmas, Easter, and in the summer peak season, mid-June to early September. But if we can’t do that, perhaps simply avoid “the big 5” and stick instead to the less-visited wonders of the City of Lights.
Having said all that, the city remains beautiful, and full of wondrous things. Truely, it seems, we’ll always have Paris. Next time you go, make sure to vist the lovely Musée de Cluny.
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