Paris’ Treasure-house Of Mysterious Medieval Marvels: The Cluny Museum

What Do Paris, Saint James, Scallop Shells, Pilgrims And Primitive Under-Floor Heating Share With Unicorns And Abbots?

Easy: Paris‘s Cluny Museum, officially France‘s National Museum of the Middle Ages.

Deciphering the mysteries of this riddle is as easy as clambering up the wooden staircases of the museum and poking through the labyrinth of its cluttered rooms.

Look at the hewn stone and massive brick walls. They might be in the Roman Forum. Correct, the Cluny Museum occupies a medieval-Renaissance mansion built into the ruins of an ancient bathhouse. It’s the oldest building in Paris, exuding atmosphere scented by beeswax. Once the Paris home of the fabulously rich Abbots of Cluny, for nearly 1,000 years Rome’s right-hand man lived here, possibly in greater comfort than a king.

Spiral or sweeping stone staircases, mullioned windows, Gothic gables and vast salons with massive timbers and mammoth fireplaces, stained-glass windows, secret passageways and sublime keyhole views: this was the abbot’s little Paris hideaway. The rest of the time he lived in an even more sumptuous residence in the town of Cluny in Burgundy.
Somewhat reduced by 19th-century modernizers and other urban vandals, the garden of the Cluny Museum once swept all the way from today’s Boulevard Saint Germain to the Seine. Now it’s a small, mossy enclave where fountains splash and the kinds of herbs and medicinal plants the monks once tended grow in symmetrical beds.

Cluny Abbey represented the money and ecclesiastical power of the Church of Rome. Cluny helped map out and build the pilgrimage routes of France (and other European countries). Those routes, dotted with lucrative, Cluny-run monasteries, still lead to the shrine of Saint James the Greater – alias Santiago or Saint Jacques – in Compostela. That’s in Galicia, Spain.Scallop shells are the symbol of Saint James; the French call them coquilles Saint-Jacques and gobble them by the million. That’s why they’re piled outside restaurants and clustered like barnacles over the façade and even the giant doors of the Cluny Museum. Pilgrims draped with real scallop shells still show up at the Cluny. Why? It’s about 100 yards off the Rue Saint-Jacques, the Way of Saint James pilgrimage route that crosses Paris, blazes due south and, at least in theory, crosses France and the Pyrenees into Spain.

The Cluny Museum was one of our first stops on the Way of Saint James, when my wife and I crossed France on foot from Paris to the Pyrenees, an insane undertaking and the subject of an upcoming book about contemporary craziness and questing.

As to the unicorns, slightly faded after 500 years, they romp across the “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries hanging in a dark upstairs room in the museum. Reverential silence reigns. For unknown reasons the air is close: bated breath, heavy breathing or faulty air conditioning? No matter. Find a seat if you can and wait until your eyes adjust to the gloom. The room is a secular pilgrimage site for anyone interested – not to say obsessed – with unicorns or the initiatory mysteries of adolescence. No one is entirely sure but most art historians speculate that the tapestries represent the human senses plus one: feminine intuition. They’re also probably about sexual initiation, the unicorn a suggestive symbol of what awaits the comely maiden shown in this mesmerizing artwork.

Original stained-glass windows rescued from the Sainte-Chapelle and half a dozen cathedrals twinkle, backlit, on the walls of a small room at the Cluny. For those like me, with imperfect vision, these usually distant gems are close enough to see the tiniest, often gruesome details. Heads are hacked off, devils ride horses, dragons are slayed, and, of course, saints are flayed or blinded.

Oh, and what about the under-floor heating? To find out head to the caldarium, tepidarium and frigidarium – vaulted Roman bathrooms below today’s street level. Everyone knows under-floor heating was an ancient Roman invention widely used in Lutetia Parisiorum – the ancient Roman name for Paris. The hypocausts – brick ovens for heating water pumped under the caldarium and tepidarium – still stand along Boulevard Saint Michel.

Once floored with mosaics and decorated with frescos, the Roman rooms now display the battered décor of ancient Lutetia Parisiorum. Sculpted stones show the guild of Seine mariners. There are portrait busts, carved ivory and architectural fragments galore. Some were found under Notre Dame Cathedral, site of an ancient Roman temple and defensive wall. Others surfaced during digs elsewhere in town. The cracked heads of the kings of the Old Testament, knocked off Notre Dame by rioting French Revolutionaries, stare down at you. Part of the once exquisite, wrecked cloister of Saint Germain des Prés surrounds an entry.

Beyond the museum’s gorgeous booty spanning the centuries, it’s the feel of the Cluny that I love most. And the fact that long before the abbots and pilgrims congregated here my mysterious hero, Emperor Julian the Apostate, was crowned at Cluny by his troops back in 360 A.D. Julian adored Lutetia Parisiorum. Not only did he try to reinstitute paganism as Rome’s official religion, he was also the first recorded Roman to get rid of the tongue-twisting name and call this layer-cake city by its modern moniker: Paris.

Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next adventure-memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His websites are,, and, dedicated to the
Italian Riviera.

[Photos by the author or courtesy of Wikipedia Commons]