Apart from joining hundreds of other tourists in Monet’s gardens at Giverny, we spent much of our Parisian travels off the more beaten of paths. One of the things we spent a good amount of time doing was simply sitting in parks and watching the life of the city. Usually we were on our way somewhere and stopped to take a break from the pavements or the metro (which involved an amazing amount of walking underground each time we transferred between stations). Here I am, in a tiny triangular green space in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, on my way to the Musée national du Moyen Âge.
The Museum is housed in a fifteenth-century hôtel associated with the abbey of Cluny, and it’s transporting to walk off the 19th century Haussmann boulevards of the city into a courtyard of cobblestones and grand wooden doors and then quickly into a building whose looming stone walls, dimly lit halls, and ever-changing levels give you the immediate sensation of stepping into the Middle Ages.
Or at least, so I imagined. I’m pretty ignorant of the Middle Ages in general, apart from having read selections from Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach as an undergraduate. My understanding of the visual arts of the period is limited mostly to Christian iconographies and my knowledge of the formal qualities of the works is even scantier. And so I found myself vaguely interested in the enamels and the sculptures we saw as we passed from room to room; the explanatory material provided on laminated sheets here and there was useful, if not inspiring. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we mounted a steep set of stairs towards the exhibits of tapisseries.
We turned left into a room hung with large tapestries that bore a vague resemblance to the vistas one often sees in the background of Renaissance paintings or stained glass windows: crowded scenes with numerous figures jostling one another in front of long perspectives of hills and castles and rivers. By this point we were ready for a break, and sat down on a bench with one of these scenes spread out before us.
At that point, things started to get interesting. You could see where sections of the weavings had been joined together, where perspectives suddenly shifted, where background became slightly discontiguous. For the first time, the art of making these enormous artworks began to appear to me, and the intrigue of artisanship gave them a new appeal.
In this hunting scene, there was more unity than in some of the others (that I unfortunately didn’t think to photograph, but the formal qualities of the composition began to fascinate. There’s the frieze of figures in the foreground, held together by the use of red in their clothing, and occasionally relieved by a blue-green doublet or overdress. The tight clustering of the foreground figures makes you read the entire image almost in a glance.
It’s only after a few minutes that you begin to notice the second row of huntsmen in the upper third of the field. Here, four figures are engaged in shooting birds. There’s more space between them, but they mimic those in the foreground in that they face left and right, their turning frontal orientations providing a sense of movement and tension to the composition. And only then did my eye wander all the way to the castles at the very top of the tapestry. The gradual diminishing of the number of figures and the increasing amount of “empty” space left between them helps to establish the illusion of distance, of perspective in the tapestry. Were the design to contain only that first cluster of lords and ladies, the whole effect would be much flatter. It’s an interesting melange of what my puny education thinks of as the flat spaces of medieval art with the approaches to realism that the Renaissance use of perspective introduces.
Sadly, I didn’t pay close attention to whatever didactics may have been available, so I remain ignorant of the date of this work’s creation. Having spent the better part of an hour looking at it, I was now intrigued by the art of the tapestry. But I wasn’t in any way prepared for what came next.
Perhaps the most famous art held by the museum was around the corner in another small, dark room. And I was stunned to walk in and find myself surrounded by a great set of unicorn tapestries, known as La Dame à la licorne, or The Lady and the Unicorn.
I’d long gone seen the famous Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters. They are altogether of a different order, crowded and lively, a riot of color and activity. Those is the Cluny are serene in comparison. I knew one of them, perhaps the most famous and certainly the most complex of the images, À mon seul désir, which graced the cover of John Renbourn’s 1970 lovely and quirky album of medieval and Renaissance tunes, not surprisingly titled The Lady and the Unicorn.
There are six tapestries in this series, and this one is the ringer. The others each depict the Lady and the Unicorn in an allegory, if that is the right word, of the senses. In the tapestry of “sight” the lady holds a mirror in which the unicorn regards himself; in “smell” she is weaving a garland of flowers, one of which has been stolen by a monkey who sniffs it. Once again, I was so entranced that I barely thought about taking photographs, and so I only have a few images of “hearing” to share now.
(The tapestries are not easy to photograph. The room is dark and quite often was crowded as well. The tapestries are easily more than ten feet tall, as I remember them, and the room itself is fairly small, so I found myself shooting at an awkward angle, which is noticeable in this picture.)
With this remarkable set of images, I felt myself firmly back in the Middle Ages: the allegory, the flatness of the composition, the puzzling iconographic details. Is the small dog an emblem of fidelity? What does the lion represent, and why is he present in each scene? (There may be some answers to be found in Gottfried Büttner’s The lady and the unicorn: the development of the human soul as pictured in the Cluny tapestries (Stroud, 1995), which waits in the stacks of the library for me.) But even without trying to interpret the meaning of these works, I found myself caught up again in marveling at their design, at the way the major figures float in a field of tiny flowers and diminutive animals, and the incredible patterning that dominates the overall composition of each tapestry.
Look at the way the weaver has given volume to the fall of the draperies and the gown of the maidservant who works the bellows for the lady’s instrument (a harmonium?). The blue underdress of the servant in the upper-right corner of this image sags a bit, as though as it falls on the ground, it folds and buckles. It’s a strange illusion to encounter is a tapestry, which can fall and buckle in the same way, being made of cloth and thread just like a garment is. I wonder if the weaver had a moment of secret, ironic delight in creating that illusion?
I thought that maybe there would be some insight to be gained from reading about the creation of the tapestries, or at least a fictional reconstruction of that process. In the gift shop at Cluny there were French translations of Tracy Chevalier’s novel (also called The Lady and the Unicorn). When I returned home, I checked the book out from the library, but alas, there wasn’t much insight to be gleaned from amongst the romantic twists of the plot. Chevalier’s novel is told from multiple points of view: the artist who made the original designs, the weavers who created the actual tapestries, the woman of the households of both the LeViste family that commissioned the tapestries and the Brussels workshop that created them. There are minor insights into things like the translation of paintings into cartoons, the challenges of weaving without artificial light, and the strictures on labor demanded by the guilds. But overall, the weavings play a decided second fiddle to the love affairs and lust; I shouldn’t have expected more, but I was still disappointed.
I was not at all disappointed, however, by the experience of these Unicorn tapestries, nor by the interest they piqued in other weavings to be found in the museum. With so much remaining of the Middle Ages in Paris, whether it be Notre-Dame or more wordily palaces, the insights that the Cluny museum offers are well worth the visit.