Musée Cluny – Musée du Moyen Age, & revisiting received ideas on Medievel v Renassiance.

Taken from my piece, from a year ago, December 2012…  If you are reading this on laptop/desktop & it’s split into 3 columns, just hit the title bar above.


Deep in the heart of the 5th, among the buildings of the Sorbonne, is the wonderful Musée de Cluny, also called the Musée national du Moyen Age (Museum of the Middle Age).

It’s located, aptly enough, within a splendid, indeed spectacular Religious House- specifically in the former Paris Chapter House and headquarters of the wealthy, powerful and influential Benedictine Order- one of the defining institutions of medieval Europe.

The museum (which I’ll call M de Cluny for short) is thus doubly-interesting.  As you walk around the wonderful exhibits of medieval, Romanesque & Gothic artifacts, (gathered here from all around France)  you do so in the frame and space of medieval architecture.   In other words, the building is as much a star as items in the collection itself.


above: Flamboyant Gothic / High Gothic vaunted ceiling.  M. de Cluny.  

France has the best medieval heritage in Europe, so the M. de Cluny in turn is probably the best museum of its kind, or its period in the world.

There are clear reasons for all this.  France of course, was the first consolidated Nation states in Europe, with a powerful, centralsed monarchy,  rich farming and trade.  That all led to a wealthy aristocracy, even wealthier and more powerful church institutions and an almost indescribably rich monarchy.  In other words to well-resourced and often enlightened sources of patronage.   The result is manifest everywhere one looks in France.

This abundant patronage allowed medieval France to develop a scholastic, intellectual and artistic and visual culture fully commensurate with its status as the preeminent Europe nation.     The evidence is everywhere you look.    Just take a walk around the old heart of Paris, into the cathedral or any of the older central churches, (say, Sainte Germain d’Auxerois; or the extraordinary, dazzling, Sainte Chapel) and one sees an extraordinary, a stunning, level of sculpture, painting, architecture and decorative arts.

Here are some bits from the museum, to illustrate the point.  (Note:  all photos bar one, by this author.  Please credit my work if you reproduce it for general recreational or educational use and Please provide a Link back to this site.   Please never use for commercial purposes 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 pretty dazzling I thought.  


I was struck by the “modernity” of these lines, see 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 tapestry above is a lovely, complex, enigmatic work of medieval allegory.    Its symbolism is mysterious and enigmatic.   But many scholars believe that 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 so bad,  I’m going to borrow a picture from elsewhere, to try show the beauty of these tapestries, justly famed around the world.

The tapestries have had a huge effect on the way we view the medieval period.  They were made especially famous when the great writer Georges Sand wrote an influencial essay celebrating them and speculating on their meaning.   Even if we don’t know them directly, there’s little doubt they’ve still influenced modern notions of medieval aristocratic culture:   its strange fusion of sensual and spiritual concerns,  its manners, 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 to the museum was that it  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.   That sounds a bit vague I realize.  Let me try and explain…

I studied art history and still teach it sometimes, both as an academic subject, through occasional talks and articles, and on walking tours.  Like most Art History graduates, a lot of my degree was concerned with Greek and Roman art, as well as early to High  Renaissance art (Notably Italian, from Venice to Florence to Rome and Naples)  then Northern European, (German, N. French, Dutch and Flemish) of the same 200-year period.

However- and this is nobody’s fault but my own- I don’t recall studying much medieval art.  Hardly any.  I barely knew what I was missing.

Whether one studies art history or not,  it’s easy to build up the lazy idea medieval European culture as 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, even anti-human age, preoccupied more with faith, and mystery and devotion.

Concurrent with all that is the notion of Man as weak, flawed, insignificant.   And Life on this earth was short and squalid.  Therefore Man’s conduct on this sin-infested planet should be mainly occupied with prayer to help gain access to the far more important, infinite afterlife, in Heaven, a paradise, united with our savior.   That was the medieval worldview in a nutshell.  (we thought)

But 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 and so on)  or in painters’ use of atmospheric perspective (de Vinci etc)

Likewise, our new, more scientific understanding of the human body, for example, was reflected in better, artistic depictions of the 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,   indeed a triumph of sorts, a triumph of the spirit and the ingenuity of Man, as opposed to the previous, endless medieval grovelling towards heaven.

Does all this narrative sound familiar?   Thought so.

Okay.  Now consider and compare these two photographs I snapped in the M. de Cluny last winter.

First,  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.

Either way,  the piece has that distinctive, unmistakable loveliness  but also the solidity, we associate with medieval art.  It is not that it is 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 still rooted to the ground, and 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 ‘s 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.   Still,  you take the larger points above,

Okay, so far, so good.

Now, exhibit 2.

Look at this-


Believe it or not,  this sculpture/statue, of Adam was made in or very near to the year 1260.  Yes, 1260…  in medieval Paris.

I know, amazing.   This piece of sculpture dates from exactly the same period as the man and the woman above it.  Those stolid peasant types, rooted in the mundane.

It is not that this Adam is “better” in any way.   But it’s certainly very different.    You’ll see straightaway that this piece of sculpture refutes, and essentially disproves everything i said earlier about Medieval, versus Renaissance knowledge: (of classical art, of anatomy, of technique).   Therefore it also contradicts and disproves everything I just wrote about medieval, versus Renaissance philosophy, culture, understanding, world-view and sensibility.    This is work of sculpture that glories in the grace and power and beauty of the human body, in the individual, autonomous self.

Finally, (as if that were not enough) look at the pose.   Observe 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 aware of the achievements, and artistic knowledge and techniques of the classical (Greek and Roman) Era,    that at least some already understood or had rediscovered the classical love of the twisting body, that dynamic potential, for contraposto. 

And, all this, over two hundred years before say, Michelangelo was born. (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.   Among all the lovely splendors of the M. de Cluny,  this was the artifact that struck me most forcefully.    I thought it might interest you to see it here today.

Next time you go to Paris,  make sure to visit the lovely Musée de Cluny.

Want to explore Art with Arran in person? 

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10 thoughts on “Musée Cluny – Musée du Moyen Age, & revisiting received ideas on Medievel v Renassiance.

  1. Some very thought-provoking observations, Arran, well put too. It’s been at least twenty years since I visited the museum but I still have very fond memories of it, not least because of the building (and isn’t some of it of Roman date?). It’s a real treasure trove and thankfully was not as crowded as the big tourist attractions that Paris offers. Just a shame that my daughter found the building dust too much and we left earlier than we hoped to…


    1. thank you so much for your kind words, it’s always lovely when someone takes the trouble to write, especially such a considered response. I completely agree this is a star of a place and – even although it is popular- visitor numbers pall compared to the Louvre, D’orsay and Notre Dame, (each of which appear to have turned into some sort of cattle market by my last visit).
      The M. de Cluny by contrast, remains relatively civilized, thank goodness.

      I was unaware that the museum (and former, enormous, Benedictine Chapter House may rest on even earlier foundations. Roman you say? That’s very interesting. Does make a certain amount of sense if that true. It is privileged, strategic site, hard by the river and the ancient center.
      very nice to hear from you


  2. Excellent, Arran. Your photographs of medieval sculpture demonstrate clearly that the conception of medieval life being leaden, grim and oppressive is totally without merit.


    1. Yes, indeed. Although I’ve been looking at fine and decorative arts for twenty-five years+ (and thinking and writing on them) I still don’t pretend to be an expert. I’ve gleaned just enough to realise how much I need to develop a more sophisticated, nuanced understanding of the era.


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