Last Updated on June 7, 2023
The Musée de Cluny/Musée National du Moyen Age (National Museum of the Middle Ages) is arguably one of France’s finest and most substantial collections of medieval art and artefacts. It’s also an important site in Gallo-Roman and Parisian history, as it sits on the foundations of former Roman baths, some parts of which are remarkably well-preserved.
Home to the enigmatic and world-famous tapestry “La Dame à la Licorne” (The Lady and the Unicorn), the Cluny Museum is an essential stop for anyone interested in Parisian history (including medieval) as well as art and daily life in the French Middle Ages.
The recently-renovated museum has become more accessible and engaging than ever thanks to significant efforts to revamp its entrance/reception areas, displays and exhibition spaces. Keep reading to find out why it remains one of the city’s best museums, alongside practical advice on how to make the most of your visit.
A Bit of History
The Musée Cluny is situated within the walls of the Hôtel de Cluny, a medieval residence that once belonged to the Abbotts of Cluny and housed a large monastic order. It was built in around 1485 in the Flamboyant Gothic style, and features lavish exterior decoration and architectural details characteristic of the late medieval period in France.
The Abbey itself sits on the foundations of Gallo-Roman structures that once served as extensive, luxurious public baths extending for some 6,000m2 underground in the city that was once called “Lutetia”—the capital of Roman Gaul.
In addition to visible exterior ruins visible from the Boulevard Saint-Michel, the Hôtel de Cluny’s basements include remarkably well-preserved sections of the ancient baths, comprising what was once the frigidarium (cold room).
Featuring dramatic vaulted ceilings that rise 13m high, the old frigidarium gives you a sense of the grandeur of Gallo-Roman Lutetia. It is not always open to the public during museum visits, but is occasionally opened to host temporary exhibits.
19th Century: The Opening of a Public Museum
By the 19th century, the Hotel de Cluny had come into the possession of a wealthy art enthusiast and collector named Alexandre de Sommerand. His passion for the art and civilization of the medieval to Renaissance period spurred him to assemble a large collection of valuable works of art and artefacts.
Following his death, the State acquired the Hotel de Cluny and Sommerand’s collections, comprising some 1500 objects at that point.
Renovated in the 19th century neo-Gothic style by architect Albert Lenoir, the Hôtel de Cluny was refashioned as a public museum in 1832.
In 2015, a major renovation project began and the museum closed until 2022. It has been entirely refashioned to create larger and more accessible entrance/reception areas, to link the exhibition spaces with ramps and elevators, expand the giftshop and add a small café. The collection has also been re-curated to better highlight certain masterpieces and important artefacts within it.
Overview of the Collections (and Highlights)
The permanent collections at the Musée de Cluny span hundreds of years and comprise hundreds of works of art (from sculpture to painting and stained glass), artefacts from daily life and religious rites (clothing shoes, jewelry, religious regalia and ritualistic objects), tapestries, manuscripts and other objects important to French medieval civilization.
Among the highlights in the fine arts category are beautifully preserved stained glass panels from the nearby Sainte-Chapelle, including one panel that depicts the biblical figure Samson prying open the jaws of a lion (circa 1474). Sainte-Chapelle’s statues of the 12 Apostles also grace the collection.
Another stained-glass masterpiece to look out for is “Chess Players” (pictured above) a 15th-century secular work from the Paris region designed in unusual tones of bright yellow and sepia. It show two figures– a man and a woman– concentrating over a chess board. But during the period it was made, chess was also a metaphor for the “game” of courtship, which the piece likely refers to as well.
Religious artefacts and ceremonial objects of note include the “Golden Rose”, a solid-gold ornament from Basel Cathedral that dates to the 14th century; an Altar frontal piece from Basel Cathedral that was created in the first half of the 11th century.
Numerous medieval paintings, sculptures, bookplates and other items in the collection depict familiar biblical scenes and episodes including the birth of Christ, the crucifixion, and “Christ in Majesty” a bookbinding plate produced in either Spain or France in the late 12th century. Featuring bold colors, it depicts Christ holding a liturgical book in his hand, surrounded by the four evangelists, and is considered a masterpiece of medieval enamelwork.
Meanwhile, a few non-Christian masterpieces also populate the collection, including an elephant ivory statuette from the 6th century that was most likely once part of a piece of furniture, and depicts the Greek goddess Ariadne, wife to Dionysus (the god of wine). The eyes were originally inlaid with glass beads.
In addition to medieval art and artefacts from the 5th to 15th centuries, the permanent collection also includes important works from the Gallo-Roman period, including “The Pillar of the Boatmen”, dating to the 1st century and discovered in the 18th during an excavation beneath Notre-Dame Cathedral.
The pillar was an offering from the Celtic river boatmen who inhabited what was once a small settlement around the Seine River to the Roman Emperor Tiberius. It depicts both Celtic and Roman deities.
The collections at the Musée Cluny are also fascinating for their more mundane objects of medieval daily life: leather shoes, tapestries, cosmetics and beautifying objects (combs, brushes, etc), jewelry and other items.
La Dame à la Licorne: A Flanders Masterpiece Circa 1500
The upper-floor galleries house the museum’s great masterpiece, “La Dame à La Licorne”. Composed of six lushly colorful woven panels, the work– woven in Flanders from drawings composed in Paris– depicts a lady and her unicorn companion surrounded by various animals and plants, in the style of a “bestiary”.
Five of the panels represent the five senses– touch, smell, sight, sound and taste– while the sixth, the most enigmatic of the series, is simply titled “A Mon Seul Désir” (To My Only Desire; pictured above).
Dating to around 1500, it’s considered one of the great masterpieces of medieval French art, and is mesmerizing to behold. The low-lit exhibition room has always been one of my favorite places to sit and meditate in Paris: each of the six panels is so elaborate and full of intricate detail that one might spend five or even 10 minutes contemplating each of them.
I do recommend allowing at least 15 or 20 minutes to fully enjoy this room– otherwise it might feel a bit too rushed. Pace your visit so that you reserve plenty of time at the end to concentrate on this remarkable piece.
Giftshop and Café
There’s a bookshop, giftshop and small café on the premises, selling hot and cold drinks as well as snacks and light meals; during the warmer months you can sit out on the courtyard terrace and admire the Hotel de Cluny’s architectural details.
At the giftshop, you can browse a variety of books, postcards, prints, replica tapestries and other gifts/memorabilia with reproductions from the collections.
Location, Contact & Practical Info
The Musée de Cluny/Musée National du Moyen Age is located in the heart of the Quartier Latin, just blocks from notable places including the Sorbonne University, Notre-Dame Cathedral and Shakespeare & Company bookshop.
- Address: 8 Rue du Sommerard, 75005 Paris (5th arrondissement); the new, entirely accessible main entrance is at 28 Rue de Sommerand
- Metro: Cluny-la-Sorbonne, St-Michel or Odéon
- Tel: +33 (0)1 53 73 78 00
- Opening Times: The museum is open daily (except Mondays) from 9:30 am to 6.15 pm. The ticket office closes at 5:30 pm. The museum is also closed on January 1, May 1 and December 25.
- Visit the official website for current ticket prices, exhibition info & more
Like This? Pin & Share!
Courtney Traub is the Founder and Editor of Paris Unlocked. She’s a longtime Paris resident who now divides her time (as well as she can manage) between the French capital and Norwich, UK. Co-author of the 2012 Michelin Green Guide to Northern France & the Paris Region, she has been interviewed as an expert on Paris and France by the BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Le Figaro, Matador Network and other publications. Courtney has also written and reported stories for media outlets including Radio France Internationale, The Christian Science Monitor, Women’s Wear Daily and The Associated Press. In addition to pursuing an insatiable interest in French culture, history, food and art, Courtney is a scholar of literature and cultural history whose essays and reviews have appeared in various forums.