Le Jardin du Musée de Cluny

By Yvonne Horn
This item appears on page 55 of the January 2014 issue.
The Musée de Cluny

(Part 1 of 2 on Paris)

Two Paris museums, the Musée de Montmartre and the Musée de National du Moyen Âge (National Museum of the Middle Ages, commonly known as the Cluny), would seem to have nothing in common, save that both hold collections… until one takes note of their gardens.

Yes, other museums in Paris claim gardens, many quite lovely. What sets these two apart is that inspiration for their creations came directly from the museums’ holdings. In this month’s column we’ll visit the Cluny and, next month, the gardens surrounding Musée de Montmartre. 

The Musée de National du Moyen Âge

The traffic noise at the corner of busy Saint-Germain and Saint-Michel boulevards turned muffled murmur this September 2013 day as I entered the Unicorn Forest via a path shaded by hazel, elder, quince and chestnut trees, trees symbolic of the era when unicorns were thought to be about. 

As I walked, I noted paw and hoof prints embedded in the pathway, letting it be known that other beings had wandered through the forest before me — rabbit, fox, lion and, yes, unicorn — escaped from the famed Lady and the Unicorn tapestries I was on my way to see.

The Musée de National du Moyen Âge has been home to the series of six Lady and the Unicorn tapestries since 1882. Considered to be one of the greatest artworks of Europe’s Middle Ages, the tapestries are undisputedly the highlight of the museum’s holdings.

All of the museum’s collections are housed in an imposing, multiturreted mansion constructed in 1334 as the Paris townhouse of the Abbots of Cluny. In 1843 it became a public museum, founded to house the accumulations of an art amateur fascinated by the Middle Ages. Acquisitions continued through the years, giving today’s visitors a colorful, diverse and extensive view of medieval art, history and mankind.

The Kitchen Garden at the Cluny in Paris. In medieval times, such a garden was a necessity. Photos by Yvonne Horn

Given the architecture and history of the museum, it might be assumed that landscaped areas surrounding the building would be exact medieval reproductions. Not so! In September of 2000, gates swung open to reveal gardens created by Eric Ossart and Arnaud Maurieères, a design team acclaimed for their innovative, nontraditional interpretation of urban spaces. 

In this case, the duo, in particular, turned to the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries to create seven contemporary spaces, with the Unicorn Forest the first encountered when entering the garden gate at the corner of rues Saint Germain-des-Prés and Saint-Michel.

The various gardens

The Unicorn Forest, harkening to the fears felt by medieval man when faced with the obscure forces of nature, leads to an enclosed terrace of gardens with period-inspired themes.

The Love Garden, filled with sweet-scented plants, represents the secret nooks for private meetings that medieval gardens often had. The Celestial Garden features revered religious symbols, such as violet for Mary’s humility, columbine’s dove-like flowers for the Holy Spirit, and strawberries’ triplet-shaped leaves symbolizing the Holy Trinity.

An array of culinary examples fills the Kitchen Garden space, an area set aside in every ancient garden as indispensable for survival. 

The Medicinal Garden, another medieval necessity, is planted with horticultural examples common to a “pharmacy” garden: herbs and those adhering to the “theory of signatures,” in which it was believed that a plant’s shape would reveal its uses. For example, if its leaf or flower were shaped like a heart, it was used to treat heart conditions. 

Roses fill the Garden of Eden, paradise lost. In this case, lunchtime paradise found. Low benches placed around the section are popular with brown baggers.

The Meadow, a long rectangle of millefleurs, or “a thousand flowers,” is centered by two canals with a reed-like metal sculpture running the length of the waterways. Inspired by the plethora of fleurs through which the Lady and the Unicorn wander, the Meadow beckons as the entranceway to the museum’s collections that, unfortunately this day, did not include the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries!

 They were away for only the second time since 1882 (the first in 1973 on loan to New York’s Metropolitan Museum), as viewers in Japan were thronging to see them while the Cluny area in which they are hung went under restoration. 

“Come back next month,” I was told.

A sad disappointment, tempered by memories of a previous visit with the Lady and the Unicorn two years before! (How dare they go wandering off to Japan!) The museum garden, however, was new to me, whetting my appetite for a return visit. 

Planning a visit

The entrance to Le Jardin du Musée de Cluny is at the corner of boulevards Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain-des-Pres. It’s open daily 9:15–5:45 but closed Dec. 25, Jan. 1 and May 1. There is no entry charge.

Le Musée de National du Moyen Âge, or the Cluny Museum (6, place Paul Painlevé, 75005 Paris, France; phone 33 [0] 1 53 73 78 16), charges 8 (near $11) for regular admission (aside from special exhibits); entry is free for those under 26 years of age.