May 20, 2013

A Continentalist in Paris: Nuit des Musees - Musee de Cluny

A fascinating insight into the "dark ages" using modern approaches.

I initially had a full itinerary planned for Nuit des Musees ("Museum Night"), an annual event where museums across the EU are open until midnight with a host of receptions and special activities - and free of charge at that.

On Saturday evening, however, it was raining heavily and our departure was deferred for a myriad of reasons, so we went straight to Musee de Cluny: le monde medieval, the only one on my list I hadn't been to before. This turned out to be a good call, providing ample entertainment for the evening.

The building itself dates back to the 14th century, where it served as the Paris residence of Cluny Abbey on the Loire. The structure definitely looks anachronistic against the backdrop of the busy streets of the Latin quarter, which only adds to its appeal - especially with the medieval courtyard and well in the entrance area.

The visit started off strong: guests are directed straight into the temporary exhibit Larmes d'Albatre ("Alabaster tears"). This consists of little statuettes surrounding the tomb of John the Fearless. Though no English translation of the pamphlet exists, and the museum website is also French-only, the museum itself has English descriptions for most exhibits and items. And it turns out that the little statuettes - The Mourners - have their own website (in English) with more information on the tomb.

In a nutshell (which isn't easy given that French medieval history is extremely rich): Jean sans Peur (John the Fearless) ruled over large parts of modern-day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands as the second Duke of Burgundy in the early 15th century. He was a key figure in the conflict between the Armagnacs and Burgundians, and his assassination threw France into further political turmoil. His tomb was suitably elaborate given his status - hence The Mourners.

Each little statuette is unique, from clothing to posture and facial features. The way in which they were displayed (going up a black staircase around the walls of the room - an allusion to Escher's Ascending and Descending?) is innovative and highly effective, allowing viewers to get a close-up view of every single piece.

The next room in the museum screened of a documentary on the restoration of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries - which is still ongoing, so we weren't able to see those.

Another successful showcasing of historical artefacts using modern methods is the display of stained-glass windows, "left over" after the restoration of Saint-Sulpice. The walls of the room are black, with the stained glass windows illuminated from behind - which gives off a pretty unique effect.

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