This February I was lucky enough to go on a two day trip to Paris with my dissertation group. It was purely educational of course, although a lot of fun was had in the process of our learning.
On the 20th February the students of our dissertation subject The Monster in Medieval Culture (a.k.a. ‘the Monsters’), our wonderful leader Dr. Alixe Bovey, and accompanied guest-monster Lucy Freeman Sandler, travelled on the Eurostar to go and have a look first hand at some of the most beautiful medieval artefacts housed in both the Musée de Cluny and the Louvre.
It was whilst on the train that the first lesson was learned: Alan Hansen will never again travel on the Eurostar, not after being accosted by 15 rather hysterical history students.
After arriving, our first afternoon was spent in the Musée de Cluny, famous for its tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn (La Dame à la licorne), a gorgeous collection of six wall size tapestries allegorically depicting the five senses, with the sixth tapestry supposedly representing desire:
Lady and the Unicorn
‘my only desire’
Late 15thC, wool and silk
The Musée de Cluny houses some amazing medieval artefacts and is certainly well worth a visit. It is a quaint museum with bundles of character, and even though the items aren’t always clearly labelled, or labelled at all, you are left with a sense of the splendour and imagination that engendered much of the artistic output of the middle ages.
Are evening thence consisted of several cocktails, including the strongest tequila cocktail I have ever had, followed by a disappointing ‘tourist’ dinner and lots of laughter. Not to mention my new favourite anecdote:
After eating the relatively ‘droopy’ dinner from a set menu of a standard tourist restaurant, the entire group were heading for the metro when the waiter came chasing after us. Grabbing the opportunity to swindle a group of trusting, innocent English students and their Canadian teacher, he claimed we were short on the bill. Now he may of had us reaching for our Euros if it weren’t for our incredible companion, the renowned art historian Lucy Freeman Sandler. The 80 something scholar immediately began, in true New Yorker style, shaking down this impetuous waiter, shouting a string of French numbers and aggressively gesticulating. Needless to say he left with his tail between his legs and we were left in awe.
So lesson 2 from Paris: never mess with an Art Historian, especially if it happens to be Lucy Sandler.
The majority of our second, and sadly our last day in Paris was spent in the Louvre, where we remained mainly in the Richelieu wing, perusing the vast collection of medieval objets d’art before of course, going to the Denon wing to see the Renaissance paintings, including the Mona Lisa, because well, you have to.
It was after the third hour of looking at the beautiful objects of the medieval galleries that I learnt my third lesson. You will need a coffee and some cake to sustain you. Hence we went for nourishment and had the most overpriced but delicious patisserie:
Louvre Cafe macaroons and coffee
My fourth lesson was unfortunately learnt as we walked through the astounding galleries of Renaissance art: People will rush past painting after painting to see the Mona Lisa, missing masterpieces like the Madonna on the Rocks and paintings by the masters Raphael and Michelangelo, all to see the Mona Lisa.
After five hours lost in the wondrous works of the Louvre’s vast collection, we walked along the Seine, where we came across the Pont des Arts; the bridge where lovers demonstrate their eternal love with padlocks locked to the bridge, a truly beautiful sight:
Pont des Arts ‘Locks of Love’
Walking through a city is truly the only way to appreciate all of its unique quirks and so we walked to our next and our final destination, Notre Dame; one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. It was insanely busy as it was the French school holidays as well as the 850th year anniversary since the construction of the Gothic cathedral was begun. Nevertheless, it was still a joy to walk around, overwhelming in its size and splendour, most notably in the rose window and the sculpture of the western façade.
Notre Dame western façade
Notre Dame, interior, rose window
Notre Dame, interior, ceiling.
Notre Dame western façade
Notre Dame western façade
Thus concluded our whirlwind trip of Paris. We returned home with images of all the wonderful things we’d seen and memories of many hilarious happenings.
My final lesson learnt: There are too many medieval objets d’art worth seeing, and that I will probably never see them all in my lifetime, but I can certainly try.
I’m going to leave you with my two favourite objects of the trip, one from the Musée de Cluny and the other from the Louvre:
Ivory Casket, Paris c.1300
This ivory casket housed in the Musée de Cluny is both unimaginably intricate and delicate in its detail. It was typically a gift given to a bride on the event of her marriage, and depicted common scenes of courtly love, such as the storming of the castle of love. This is a rare piece purchased by the museum in 2008.
Reliquaries of Saint Louis and Saint Luke of Toulouse, Naples (1336 – 1338)
These two arms are representative of the permeation of the cult of saints into all aspects of Medieval culture. The arms, the left one being a reliquary to contain the bone of the arm of Saint Louis, and the right the arm of Saint Luke, are rare examples of artwork produced for the Angevin court in Naples. The luxuriousness of these items coupled with the somewhat morbid display of the human body perfectly defines the culture surrounding the medieval veneration of the saints at the height of the Gothic period. (Sorry for my goofy face in the background, can’t you tell I was captivated?) For a more detailed description and much better photographs of the image, visit the catalogue entry on the Louvre museum website.
I don’t know if you can tell, but I absolutely adored my two days in Paris, the company of my classmates was, well, top class, and to be accompanied by Lucy Sandler was an experience to say the least, a truly inspiring woman whose own history is as interesting as that which she herself writes. The city of love certainly has my heart and I shall most definitely be returning to Paris, but alas I fear next time it wont be at the expense of the University of Kent School of History, so I had better start saving my pennies.
*Many of the pictures aren’t mine, but belong to my classmates, who happen to be much better photographers than I.