Eight-Week Europe Solo Travel 2011: Exploring the Middle Ages at the Cluny

Wednesday, June 1, 2011, Paris, Journal Excerpt

Standing in front of the door to the tower of the Cluny museum, which according to Wikipedia was used by  Charles Messier  to make observations of the night sky, perhaps in aid of finishing the important Messier catalog. Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

Standing in front of the door to the tower of the Cluny museum, which according to Wikipedia was used by Charles Messier to make observations of the night sky, perhaps in aid of finishing the important Messier catalog. Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

It's the first day of June. It's cooler in Paris than it was in Dresden, but the sun is shining brightly and sitting in the sun now is quite warm and pleasant. I'm at the Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens) sitting in the Pavilion de la Fontaine at an open air cafe called Café Richard, and sipping a double espresso macchiato. The salad I've ordered has arrived, so I must eat it now

[sounds of crunching while eating salad]

My shrimp, tomato and melon salad with thousand island dressing. It certainly looks good! At Café Richard at the Pavilion de la Fontaine in the Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens), Paris, France.

My shrimp, tomato and melon salad with thousand island dressing. It certainly looks good! At Café Richard at the Pavilion de la Fontaine in the Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens), Paris, France.

That was good—nothing special but I didn't expect anything extraordinary in the open air cafe. The macchiato, however, was perfect. I may have another, but I think I will try a crepe and pistachio ice cream—a glace. The sun has gone down a bit and now I am feeling a bit chilly again here at the gardens. But the coffee should warm me up even as the ice cream freezes me out.

View from my table at Café Richard at the Pavilion de la Fontaine in the Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens), Paris, France.

View from my table at Café Richard at the Pavilion de la Fontaine in the Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens), Paris, France.

Today I spent all morning and early afternoon at the Cluny. Formerly the Musée de Cluny, it is now called the Musée national du Moyen Âge (the National Museum of the Middle Ages). This is my kind of museum: Just twenty rooms of very old art and artifacts that have cultural significance, either symbolic or practical, in the era I'm interested in; plus an audio tour I can take with me and listen to at my leisure (it's included in the price of admission). And the museum is housed at a historically interesting site: An ancient building beside a medieval one, Roman beside French. How much more astounding can a museum be? I was again entering hallowed ground. The Cluny Hotel was built on top of a Roman bath house as the townhouse for the abbots of the order of Cluny, circa 1334. This place was full of contradictions—I crossed squeaky wooden floors with interlocking floral designs below a timbered ceiling and then, down some steps, I am walking on a stone floor and peering at Roman brick work and stone arches.

The entranceway to the frigidarium. The archway probably came from the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

The entranceway to the frigidarium. The archway probably came from the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

(I've pulled myself fully into the sun at the cafe now. That's better. Someone is smoking and apparently I am down wind of that person. Oh, well. I hope the server doesn't mind that I moved the table. I am staying here quite a while, but it is getting so noisy and crowded that I can't hear myself think.  It was quiet when I arrived. Perhaps this cafe is popular because it is so close to the gardens entrance. The server tells me no pistachio. Have to change to a chocolate glace. Darn.)

A cracked capital showing crude figures that used to top a column at the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

A cracked capital showing crude figures that used to top a column at the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

The archway in the basement of the Cluny was very impressive. It was made of stone and had been recovered from the “Lady Chapel”—possibly at the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés--and restored. It is now the entranceway to the Roman frigidarium below the main floor/entrance of the museum. The frigidarium is the only part of the original—and huge—bath complex built in the third century. It was a large and cold pool that bathers would enter after they spent time in the caldarium (hot steam room) then the tepidarium (warm room). What a life! This was the first of many unplanned interactions with Roman ruins on my trip.

Now housed in the frigidarium are several capitals from columns at the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The figures were crude probably because they existed on the top of columns and over arches, which would be difficult to see with the naked eye so did not need to be perfect.

This tombstone, although quite faded, shows traces of red coloring. I am guessing the person buried under it was an important holy woman, probably an Abbess. Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

This tombstone, although quite faded, shows traces of red coloring. I am guessing the person buried under it was an important holy woman, probably an Abbess. Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

The figures on the 12th century stonework at the Cluny were late Romanesque bordering on Gothic. The stone was gray, but some may have been originally colored. I say this because the tombstones housed in the same room were decorated and in color. Such vividness seemed to represent the hopefulness for life after death. So hopeful and trusting of the rituals. They decorated the stones in the loved one's honor. Perhaps they are correct. Death then is not so harsh.

Heads of the kings of Judah -- sculptures of them anyway. During the French Revolution they were mutilated and buried because the rebels thought they represented the Kings of France. Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

Heads of the kings of Judah -- sculptures of them anyway. During the French Revolution they were mutilated and buried because the rebels thought they represented the Kings of France. Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

As I sit here at the cafe reflecting on the Cluny, I wonder: Would my novel's main character, Aihne, have been impressed? Her interest is in early medieval history—she would see the great number of artifacts that we have collected and recovered from the 15th century and later. The domestic life exhibit is particularly detailed. It includes a chessboard, chessmen, and an entire set of other games played with the same board. Also housed there is a “manufactured” tapestry for a lesser noble's house with repeating figures and an unchanging background. But what of the domestic life of the inhabitants of the previous three hundred years? Ever since Aihne saw the Eleanor Vase when she was fifteen, she had wanted to uncover the stories, the riddles. She had switched her major to History with a French minor from English and biology, and then spent a summer in a program at the Sorbonne on the Left Bank before heading back to the States to study Medieval history at Harvard. Harvard had begged her to return. But so had her father. He had been so lonely after her mother died. And he was not one to beg.

Although I would love to tell you these are the bodies that go with the heads in the previous photo, they aren't. These statues are also from Notre Dame. I think one of them is Saint Stephen. Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

Although I would love to tell you these are the bodies that go with the heads in the previous photo, they aren't. These statues are also from Notre Dame. I think one of them is Saint Stephen. Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

Aihne would stand in the catacombs of the Cluny staring at the broken pedestals, the beheaded statuary, and be piecing the stone fragments together in her head. She'd be imagining herself examining the stained glass in its original window niche in the Basilica of St. Denys. Its bright reds and greens and yellows so vibrant, as if the stain glass had been made just days before rather than 900 years before. She would make note of the stained glass in particular because it had been commissioned by Abbott Sugar, the same guy who commissioned the ornate base and neck for the Eleanor Vase. He was regent for Eleanor's first husband, King Louis VII, before Louis was of age.

Stain glass windows originally from St. Denis circa 1140-1144 and commissioned by Abbott Sugar. Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

Stain glass windows originally from St. Denis circa 1140-1144 and commissioned by Abbott Sugar. Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France.

The gold plated altar cover shining in unevenly shaped glory would catch Aihne's eye. It had been hammered over a wood relief underneath and then studded with jewels. Fragments of shawls and smocks had been found and been preserved in the vaults. Aihne's imagination fills details in smoothly, but still she wishes she could see the real thing in 3-D in its time of glory—perhaps even touch it. This is the moment, here at the Cluny, when she decides she will enter the time travel program, not just get her PhD in medieval history. She will get the technical degree in time travel physics coupled with medieval history that was offered by Harvard in conjunction with M.I.T.  And she would walk where Eleanor of Aquitaine walked. And maybe even walk with Eleanor.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries (c.1500), Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France By Spencer Means(Own work) [ CC BY-SA 2.0 ].

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries (c.1500), Musée de Cluny / Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France By Spencer Means(Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0].

And even though they were made much later than the days of Eleanor, one of Aihne's favorite parts of the Cluny would be La Dame à la licorne or the Lady and the Unicorn. This set of six tapestries at the top of the museum are breathtaking and seeing them jump-started Aihne's interest in weaving. But as she became more and more interested in the life of Eleanor, she focused more on the embroidery that was the domestic craft of the 12th century.

Ah! That sun at Luxembourg Gardens feels so soothing, caressing. It's relaxing me. I feel happy—a break from the hectic parts of this trip. Tomorrow I am off to Burgundy—it doesn't seem possible! And I will drive a car in France! But now I wish to think more about the Musee' de Cluny ...