Musee de Cluny, Roman Paris

The next major site on our tour of the Latin Quarter of Paris is the Musee de Cluny. A straightforward route from the Pantheon is indicated in purple dashes on the map to the right. This is a busy area in term time as you are passing by one of the campuses of the famous Paris university, the Sorbonne, as you walk down Rue Saint Jacques. When walking down this street, the tourist should be aware that it is the oldest street in Paris, laid out by the Romans as the main street through Lutetia, the Roman town that arose here in the first century CE. It led directly down to the Ile de la Cite and connected with the Roman Road to Spain. (See Appendix 1)

The Cluny Museum is officially titled, the ‘Musee National du Moyen Age’, translated, it is the National Museum of the Middle Ages. The bonus for visitors is that the museum is housed in two separate buildings, both of historic importance in the history of Paris. The main body of displays are held in a mansion that was originally the town house of an order of monks, the abbots of Cluny. The other section of the Museum is the remnants of a Gallo-Roman Bathhouse that was built here around the third century. What remains is a third of the original size of the Roman Baths and the largest Roman vault in France.

As mentioned in a previous blog, I visited Musee de Cluny in 2007, mainly to have a look at the most significant holdings of this museum, the 6 tapestries in the series, ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’. They were woven in Flanders from wool and silk based on designs drawn in Paris around 1500; the original artist remains unknown.  They are considered to be amongst the greatest art works of the Middle Ages. They were rediscovered in a castle in central France in 1841 and brought to the public attention by George Sand (author, Amantine Dupin’s pen name), one of the most popular European writers of the mid 19th century. They were bought by the Musee de Cluny in 1863 and needed considerable conservation work to restore them.

There are many exhibits in the Cluny Museum to take up a good couple of hours strolling around the displays. Just to pick two items I was fascinated by, note the ‘votive-crowns’ (Image on left below) that were created in the 7th century in Spain and disappeared unknown years later before they were dug up in an orchard near Toledo in Spain in the middle of the 19th century. The collection is known as the Treasure of Guarrazar.  Some of the items in the treasure collection went to the Musee de Cluny, others to the Archaeological Museum of Spain and some of course were stolen and disappeared back into the unknown hands of treasure thieves!

A minor area Church history that has always surprised me are the amazing reliquaries that you find in European churches and museums from the Middle Ages that supposedly contain bodily parts of Jesus of Nazareth. They are often great works of art themselves such as the one on the right below of the Virgin and child that is meant to have contained the umbilical cord of the baby Jesus. It just gives me new respect for the prescience of Mary who, after presumably realising the astounding future significance of her son, preserved the umbilical cord of her child for a future sale to a credulous apostolic family. There is also another icon in the Musee that depicts the circumcision of Christ (16th century Antwerp). I am not sure if it is meant to contain the foreskin of Jesus but I can only muse about the difficult conversation between Jesus and his mother if he came across these preserved scraps of human tissue in some back room in their house in Nazareth during his adolescence…“What the hell are these things Mum?” might have been an opening question!

There are many strange stories of archaeological discoveries in Paris that shed an ironic light on important times in France’s history. For example, it is well known that large mobs during the early years of the Revolutionary period were prone to attack churches and palaces to rid themselves of reminders of the bad old days under the rule of French monarchs. One example of this is the mob that pulled down the 28 statues of supposedly past kings of France that adorned the west façade of Notre Dame cathedral. It was in the same month that the unlucky Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was beheaded and this lust for royal blood wasn’t abated so one bright spark decided to stir up the mob again to pull down the statues of previous Kings of France on the Cathedral roof and behead them  in the square in front of the cathedral. The only problem with this event was that the statues didn’t depict French kings, but represented the biblical Kings of Judah. These figures were replaced in the slightly calmer times of the 19th century but the original sculptures had disappeared. A hundred years later, the buried heads were dug up near Opera and so they are now preserved and displayed in the Musee de Cluny! It’s a good story to support the maxim, “Those who forget their history are doomed to make embarrassing mistakes in the future!”

The other section of the Musee de Cluny to be inspected is the remnants of the Gallo-Roman baths built here early in the third century by the guild of boatmen who made their money trading goods along the Seine River. The image to the right shows a reconstruction of the major elements of this huge bathhouse. Visitors can visit the Frigidarium room, the room original guests entered after they had relaxed in the hot tub and now needed to close down their pores by entering the cold water pool of this room. Water to these baths and the town itself were supplied by the usual Roman aqueduct running for 16kms from the outskirts of modern Paris.

Roman Paris or Lutetia/Lutice was expanding in the late third century but alas its time as a Roman city was cut short by the waves of Barbarian invasions that swept across most of Europe. The left bank of Paris was unprotected by fortifications so the Bath house is believed to have been destroyed at the end of the third century. Its missing stones today were used elsewhere in Lutetia to shore up the defenses of the Ile de la Cite.

Musee de Cluny has a lovely garden for visitors to stroll in after they have finished viewing the splendid exhibits in this very interesting museum. If there is still time in your day, it is a good idea to head down Rue Racine and have a look at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe which is one of France’s six national theatres. From here it is an easy walk to our last destination for this walk around the 5th and 6th districts of Paris, the church of St Sulpice.

APPENDIX 1: Roman Paris

One of the important aspects of Musee de Cluny is that it preserves surviving ‘remnants’ of the first city that developed around the Ile de la Cite of Paris; the major one being the Gallo Roman Bathhouse. On the left below is an excellent map (Courtesy: James H.S. McGregor, Paris from the Ground Up) that attempts to set out what is known about Lutece/Lutitia. It clearly delineates the main Roman Road of Paris (today’s Rue Saint Jacques) leading directly to one of the bridges over the Seine. On the western end of Ile de La Cite it shows where a Temple to Jupiter once stood, basically where Notre Dame stands today. If you are visiting Paris and you have already checked out the Cathedral, why not go down to the crypt and see the archaeological exhibition there (reopened 10th September, 2020). There you will find the remains of a wharf of the city of Lutece as well as parts of the walls erected to protect the citizens from the Barbarian invasions. Another item originally discovered in the archaeological dig around Notre Dame in the 1960s is the Pillar of the Boatmen, today held of course in Musee de Cluny (on right below).

There is also another extant remnant of the Gallo-Roman city and that is the Arenes de Lutece. The map to the right shows how it can be reached as part of a visit to the Pantheon; by going around the Pantheon along Rue de L’Estrapade, it is a short walk to the remains of the Roman Arena in Square des Arenes de Lutece. It was built in the first century CE and could seat 15000 people. Like the rest of Lutece, it was sacked by barbarians in 275 and large pieces of its structure were taken to bolster the walls of the city. It was rebuilt in the sixth century but was filled in by the 12th century.

Unlike the Roman Baths, the Roman arena disappeared from the landscape and it wasn’t until the 1860s that it was rediscovered when it was dug up during a road building project. None other than Victor Hugo called for the ruins to be preserved and by 1896 it was opened as a public square. What the original arena looked like is shown in the model on the left below and what is left today is captured by the image on the right. Also below is another map that attempts to capture a drone’s eye view of what the larger area of Lutece may have looked like in the third century.

Courtesy: James H.S. McGregor, Paris from the Ground Up


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