Thursday, July 17, 2014

Cluny Museum, Paris

These photos were all taken at the

Musée de Cluny / Musee National du Moyen Age, which I had not visited in approximately 15 years.  I'd added the museum to my short list of 'Museums I Want to Visit That I Haven't Been to in a Very Long Time' and I'm so glad I did -- what a treasure it is, truly!  I loved seeing again the 16th century Retable (altarpiece) of scenes of the birth of Christ in the Grande Salle, and the statue of St. Denis holding his head (15th century), the gorgeous ceramics, the Pilier de Nautes (Pillar of the Boatmen and the oldest dated monument in Paris, from the 1st century AD), and the Gallery of Kings from Notre-Dame.  Most everyone knows that the sculpted heads were destroyed after the French Revolution because it was believed that they represented the kings of France, and in fact they are the kings of Judah, ancestors of the Virgin Mary and Christ.  But thanks to a handy laminated card at the Cluny, I learned more about these heads and the facade of the great cathedral and I took notes, which I'm sharing here as I think a number of visitors may not be aware of their interesting story:

The discovery of hundreds of sculptured fragments in 1977 at the headquarters of the Banque Française du Commerce Extérieur (now Banque Natexis) was enormous in terms of advancing our understanding of Notre-Dame de Paris.  (Banque Natexis donated all the sculptures to the Cluny.)  After the cathedral was vandalized in 1793, the sculptures were purchased by a builder named Monsieur Bertrande, who later sold them and they were used to maintain the foundation of a private mansion for a man named Jean-Baptiste Lakanal-Dupuget (I tried to find out more about these two men but an Internet search didn't turn anything up). 

Only 22 of the 28 heads remain identifiable, although according to the Cluny the heads weren't intended as portraits.  They were, however, all distinct, and there was a clear intention to differentiate one from another.  The head believed to be of David shows traces of paint, and indeed all of the heads were originally painted, as was the entire facade of Notre-Dame and most other medieval facades.  The faces are very elongated and monumental but aren't delicately carved, and the sculptors "took account of the distance and the low angle from which the statues would be viewed, elongating them disproportionately as a result, but not needlessly working on details which would not be visible."

For delving further, hands-down the very best book ever written about Notre-Dame is Notre Dame of Paris: The Biography of a Cathedral by Allen Temko (Viking, 1955).  I read this book some years ago but it was a library copy, so I was particularly pleased when, after my visit to the Cluny, I walked to Shakespeare & Company and found a hardcover first edition.  I bought it not only because the book is terrific and I wanted to have my own copy, but also in memory of Temko, who passed away in 2006.  I met him when we both worked in the same building in San Francisco, and I immediately adored him because he was smart and funny and outspoken (he was also the basis for the character Roland Major in Jack Kerouac's On the Road).  Temko was architecture critic for The San Francisco Chronicle from 1961 to 1993, and he was honored with a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for criticism.  He served in the Navy during World War II and when the war was over he moved to France, taught at the Sorbonne, and wrote the book on Notre Dame, his very first, which I find rather astonishing as the book is absolutely superb -- it has been referred to as the "definitive profile" of the cathedral and a "landmark book."  He later noted that France "led me to see art and architecture as expressions of great civilizations."     

The Cluny is of course also the home of the 'La Dame à la Licorne' (The Lady and the Unicorn) tapestries, six of them, and there are still many more visitors in this room than anywhere else in the museum.  Again, after so many years, these weavings remain so gorgeous -- in January of this year they were returned to the Cluny after a two-year cleaning.  I love the quotations at the entrance to the room:

Ce sont des femmes sur des îles:
une grande solitude feminine
une solitude qui a l’air enchanté.
--Yannick Haenel, À mon seul désir, 2005
(They are women on islands / A profound feminine solitude / An enchanted solitude)

Il y a des tapisseries [...]
Viens, passons lentement devant elles [...]
Comme elles sont tranquilles, n'est-ce pas?
(There are tapestries here / Come let us pass slowly before them / How peaceful they are,
are they not?)
--Rainer Maria Rilke, Les Cahiers de Malte Laurids Brigg, 1910 

Tracy Chevalier, noted author of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn (both available in paperbacks by Plume), wrote an interesting article about these tapestries that I've had in my files for years, and I'm sorry I can't tell you exactly when it was written or where it appeared.  Occasionally I clip pieces and forget to make sure I note the publication and date, and I'm afraid that's what happened with this one.  I think the article may have been in Town & Country but I can't be certain.  But at any rate, Chevalier's article opens with, "Sometimes a picture doesn't paint a thousand words.  Sometimes a picture is so mysterious that it takes a hundred thousand words to explain it."  She relates that for years she was so fascinated with Vermeer's 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' that she decided to make up a story about it, and thus that book was born.  Later, she was likewise captivated by 'The Lady and the Unicorn.'  At the time Chevalier was working on her manuscript for The Lady and the Unicorn, she had reproductions of all six tapestries hung up on the wall behind her computer.  "But none of this," she wrote, "can equal the impact of standing in that quiet room in Paris surrounded by serene faces, beautiful dresses, curious animals, and thousands of flowers."  It is an incomparable experience, I can attest.  (Note that seeing 'The Hunt of the Unicorn' tapestries -- dating from the same period, the 15th century -- at The Cloisters in New York, which is celebrating its 75 year anniversary, is also an amazing art viewing experience.)

Chevalier closes her piece by opining that "Perhaps the best works of art are those that don't give answers, but ask questions that hang in the air long after we have stopped looking," and on that note I shall close this post as well.         


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