A Visit to the Medieval Museum of Paris
The Medieval Museum of Paris goes by a few different names; the Musée National du Moyen Âge or The National Museum of the Middle Ages, Musée de Cluny or more commonly, the Cluny Museum of Paris.
Whatever you prefer to call it, a visit to the Cluny Museum is probably one of the most entertaining things you can do in Paris, in France and arguably in all of Europe. I say this because of the museums eclectic nature and the variety of content that is housed within its walls.
The space itself is a historical landmark that I’m sure make many old Parisians grateful that walls can’t talk. A monumental piece of land that has withstood the most tumultuous eras of all time.
The first thing many people want addressed before paying visit to the Cluny, is whether or not the museum is suitable for children as well as adults. From my experience of the space I’m somewhat torn with this.
Visually, the museum is exceptionally stimulating. However I am unable to conclude if being interested in the history behind the visuals is what makes this so — or if they are worthwhile on their own.
For children, a museum need only be visually stimulating and they should manage hours in the space. The Cluny is a difficult one to pin down. I’d say if your children are generally accustomed to museum visits they’ll find enjoyment within this space for the most part.
The museum itself is located just two blocks south of the Seine, between the water and the Jardin du Luxembourg, in the 5th arrondissement of Paris. This is a bustling part of the city, which much to do and much to see — a free guided walking tour is always recommended.
Musée de Cluny
28 rue Du Sommerard, 75005 Paris
Metro: Cluny-La Sorbonne / Saint-Michel / Odéon
Bus: no. 21 – 27 – 38 – 63 – 85 – 86 – 87
Admission fee: €9
History of the Medieval Museum of Paris
The Cluny Museum gets its name from being built upon the famous residence known as the Hôtel de Cluny. The Hôtel de Cluny is a collection of buildings where construction of which dates back to 1485.
Back in the day, the site belonged to the Abbey of Cluny and the name has simply stuck around through the ages until today. Along with the Cluny Hotel comes another Parisian monument called the Gallo-Roman Thermes, which were constructed in the 2nd century.
During the French Revolution many properties in Paris fell under ownership of the State. When things died down, they would be sold at auction to the highest bidder in attempt to regain life inside the walls.
In 1833 the property de Cluny was purchased by an art collector named Alexandre du Sommerard. It remained in his name until his death in 1842 whereupon the property and its contents then returned to State ownership.
Upon realizing what treasures the walls held, the property was only transformed into the museum that we know it for today in 1843. The idea was to create a space that would tell the tales of the French Middle Ages as accurately as possible for generations to come.
The Cluny Museum, or Museum of the Middle Ages, has done just that. What was once just a magnificent mansion belonging to some wealthy aristocrats is now an educational hub of Paris and draws in thousands upon thousands of visitors each year.
When you enter the property after arriving in the 5th arrondissement you’ll enter via the main courtyard. Take a moment to admire the Cluny mansion in all its glory.
The property is huge and made up of separate clusters in which the museum spans across. Due to its size, it’s unlikely you’ll manage to complete all the sections in one visit. I love the Cluny Museum because each section is notably independent from the next and you never feel like you’re leaving something out by leaving and returning another day.
Visit this museum if you have any interest in learning a thing or two about Medieval France from an organic viewpoint; as well as any interest in gothic Roman architecture that has been so well preserved by the city of Paris until now.
Artworks at the Medieval Museum of Paris
The collection of Medieval art that lives in this museum has been dubbed the finest in the world by multiple sources.
If you look at the collections contextually, it’s easy to understand why. Artworks that were made in the heart of the Medieval world are found between these walls; they are not interpreted works, replicas or representations of age old tales; they are the real deal — a mirror of the world that was going on right on the streets of Paris.
The Cluny Museum is best known for their collection of tapestry works. If you only have a short amount of time in this museum, this is the section you don’t want to miss.
The most famous tapestry in France can be found here: The Lady and The Unicorn.
The work is a series of six pieces that are regarded by many as the Mona Lisa of the tapestry art world. Despite having to undergo some minor restorations a few years ago, they are still in their original preserved state and a true feast for the eyes, let me tell you.
I’m probably a bit biased on account of being extremely partial to tapestry art — however I don’t think any visitors of these works have ever left the museum anywhere short of amazed at the workmanship observed.
Moving toward the Romanesque Gallery the museum breaks away from the tapestry world and shifts into more handcrafted works of wood and ivory.
During the Medieval times, artists carved intricate works into these pieces of stone and ivory in hopes of selling them to the percentage of the population who liked to decorate their homes in ornate manners.
The carvings are beautiful. Sort of like the hieroglyphics of France, if you will. Each one depicting some sort of cryptic story that we can only speculate on today.
The museum’s Treasury is where you’ll want to end your visit if you can. It requires little concentration or absorption of information; you’ll be free to simply marvel at the visual pleasure that the works contain.
Crowns from the 14th century, jewelry belonging to the Pope and more gold than you can possibly imagine sit in this section of the museum.
Gardens at the Medieval Museum of Paris
The 5th arrondissement of Paris is not all concrete and cobblestones; there are many wonderful parks in the area to enjoy on days that the weather in Paris permits it.
As I mentioned, the Cluny Museum is just a few blocks from the famous Jardin du Luxembourg. These are beautiful and a must for anyone who is spending the day walking the neighborhood.
As you can imagine, the site of the once Cluny residence has some glorious garden spaces of its own. Also known as the Medieval Garden, the Cluny Museum gardens were first opened to the public in 1971, and later restored in 2000.
In the gardens you’ll find replica scenes from some of the Medieval tapestry works that hang in the museum itself. The terraces of the Cluny gardens have been planted with the exact plant species depicted in the works, in attempt to reflect the Medieval times as accurately as possible.
This side of the garden is great for a stroll and immersive day-dreaming about what it was like back in the day. The other side of the gardens you’ll find a more social space with benches and a children’s play area.
I love that the Cluny Museum gardens are completely open to the public; meaning you can visit them at any time without a museum ticket. Beautiful for a stroll during the spring when the flowers come into bloom!
The Roman Baths at the Medieval Museum of Paris
The oldest feature on the property are the Roman Bath chambers upon which the rest of the buildings foundations were built. Also known as the Thermes de Cluny, these date back to between 14 and 17 AD.
It is believed that was remains of these baths is only one 3rd of what the premises held during their heyday back in the 3rd century.
Being so rich in history, it makes sense that the baths were incorporated into the collections that make up the Cluny Museum. Over the years, much of the bath area has made up an archeological research site in attempt to gain more knowledge on their function and history back in the day.
Imagine the Parisian Left Bank so many centuries ago, when these Roman vaults were open to public recreation. To have withstood the test of time is an understatement. The Roman Baths remain the oldest known vault in the whole of France.
Due to safety and preservation precautions, not all of the bath vaults are open to public viewing as art of the museum tours; but most of the main ones, such as the caldarium and tepidarium, are.
Abbot’s Chapel at the Medieval Museum of Paris
Being so many centuries old you can imagine that many parts of the interior of the Cluny mansion had to be rebuilt or restored from time to time. Abbot’s Chapel is the only surviving interior detail of the original mansion that remains untouched to this day.
Architecturally, the chapel is a wonder. As you look up you’ll be absolutely blown away by the palm tree designs that make up the core pillars of the interior and woodwork.
The alter tables are also the originals from the 12th century, along with many other church artifacts that make up the collections. The chapel is said to be one of the finest known examples of Flamboyant architecture.
Entry into the chapel is included in the price of admission; I find this space to be a great place to take a breath and a break between exploring the rest of the museum. It’s cold and quiet; haunting almost, but not in a threatening way.
Medieval history has a tendency to be chaotic and loud, this comes through the exhibitions in the rest of the museum. The Abbot’s Chapel is a nice contrast to the chaos and shows a different side to the era that we think we know so much about.
Notre Dame Gallery at the Medieval Museum of Paris
This last room that I want us to explore is known to the museum as the Notre Dame Gallery. It is world renowned for being one of the most bizarre exhibitions in Europe, without really being that strange at all.
The gallery is a white room in which 21 stone heads are on display. The heads are of monarchs throughout royal eras of Israel. What makes the exhibit so bizarre is that all of the stone heads are missing their noses.
The kings were thought to be ancestors of Christ, so they were honored with stone replicas to be remembered throughout time. The originals were full body sculptures that were housed in Notre-Dame’s west façade.
In 1793 an angry mob mistook the statues as kings of France, and beheaded each one. It was thought that the heads of the Israeli kings were lost forever, but in 1977 they were miraculously all found in an excavation near the Paris Opera.
Today, you can view all 21 stone heads in the white room at the Cluny Museum. Quite remarkable and duly noted as one of the most major archaeological finds of the 20th century!
Feeling ready to brace the rambunctious history between the walls of the Cluny Museum? As I said, lots to do and lots to see and as always: comfy shoes!
The mysteries of the Medieval era await you at the Cluny Museum in Paris.