A Year Ago Today we were at the Cluny Museum in St Michel, Paris. Originally built as an abbey for the abbots of Cluny, it is now le Musée National du Moyen Age. A building with multiple lives.
This very attractive 15th century secular Gothic building, constructed atop a Gallo-Roman baths complex dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, houses a rich collection of medieval objects and works of art. Perhaps most famous is the 15th century allegorical “La Dame à la Licorne” (Lady and the Unicorn) tapestry cycle that shows us life in the Middle Ages, but it also has a collection of beautiful stained glass panels.
Elsewhere I have a review of the museum, but here I want to give some reflections on the tapestries and the stained glass.
The Tapestries are so precious, so lovely, so detailed, so full of symbolism that it’s impossible to adequately describe them. It’s a clear case of “a picture is worth a 1000 words”. But, in this case it goes even further, as it needs to be a feast for the actual eyes because a picture doesn’t do them justice either—you need to actually see them all, hanging side by side in the room specially constructed to house them.
The 6 tapestries have fortunately always been together as a collection, which is unusual for medieval art works. One should spend some time to really absorb and understand these tapestries—what’s in each, what it means. Five are based on each of the senses (hearing, sight, taste, touch, and smell), then there’s a final one, displaying the words “A mon seul desir”, which many people take to mean love or understanding. Each of the tapestries depicts a noble lady with a unicorn on her left and a lion on her right. Some have a monkey, all have many flowers and other small animals and birds. All are very symbolic. They were commissioned by Jean le Viste, so his crest is woven into the pennants and the armor of the unicorn and the lion.
The stained-glass panels are wonderfully set out and lit so you really can get an idea of what they look like, and the amazing details that are possible. Even here in the museum, as the artificial light shines through them, they glow, and I begin to understand what it must have been like for all those folk in the middle ages who had no electricity for lights, very little in the material sense to aid their hard lives; but, they had immense churches, with panels of stained-glass windows that gleamed and shimmered. The panels must have seemed like a gift from God to those folk, like a shining story to inspire them, comfort them, give them peace. I begin to see more deeply the power and the magic of these colored story-windows.
I’ve always loved the windows, and am amazed and delighted each time I enter one of Paris’s many beautiful churches, such as Notre Dame, St Eustache, St Denis, St Severin. Even on a grey day the colors come through, but on a sunny day something special and magical happens; bands of colored light fall on the floor and on the columns, lighting them with an ethereal rainbow effect, shimmering, elusive, changing rapidly. We try to capture the effect on camera, but usually are only half-successful.
Stained glass literally let in shining bright colored light in the Dark Ages in the interior of huge gloomy churches. Like a beacon, these rays of light offered hope and salvation. If I am fascinated with the play of colored light even now, someone who is well-educated, well-read, widely-traveled, then we can only begin to understand or suspect what those sheets of colored glass stories meant to the people of those times.