Should you find yourself overwhelmed by the state of the world, or by a personal sadness, or even too much happiness–you might want to step out of time for a time. In Paris this is easy. Walk up the Boulevard St. Germain from the Museum of Arab Culture, or down from the Sorbonne. Stay on the deeply shaded, Seine side until up ahead, across the street, you’ll see a clearing, some old trees fluttering new pink blossoms, and behind them the gray buttresses and gothic bays of the restored 15th century ‘Hotel’ of the Abbey of Cluny. Go round back of the building to enter the gate. There may be groups of foreign tourists and French schoolchildren milling about, but their noise and excitement won’t bother you; they are as ephemeral as you are, here. Take in the bright peacefulness of the courtyard. Note the attention that Cluny’s builders gave to every object they formed. You’ll find no distinction between noble and base: even the rain gutters are carved like vines. Go inside. Buy a ticket. Go deeper.
There’s a winding staircase, dimly lit by lead-pane windows. Upstairs, all the numbered rooms are shadowy, with flashes of light from steel swords, reliquaries, jewelry, drinking cups, a gold-trimmed tree sculpture. The Hotel de Cluny was the home-away-from-home of the wealthy and powerful Abbots of the Monastery at Cluny, when their eminences stayed in Paris. A fine little chateau in the city, built in part over 1st century Roman baths, now restored, that invite the imagination. A palimpsest, of course Upstairs, tapestries cover and warm the high stone walls, now as then. There is a chapel with wooden kneelers decorated with highly secular, amusing carvings. There are over 17 rooms; you will lose your bearings. You’ll notice teenaged art students scattered around, nearly motionless like the guards, remote inside their earphones. Their drawings (you sneak glances over their shoulders) are startlingly accomplished, the styles already distinct. (You are surprised and happy to think that in Paris, at least, artists learn to draw.)
The tapestries display scenes of street life, farm life, a jousting match; there is a renowned roomful illustrating the life of St. Stephen, whose unidealized features age with his trials. Everywhere the woven protagonists are unexpectedly life-like: there’s jealousy, tenderness, surprise–so many emotions, some as yet unnamed, stitched together in the heavy silk that ages so much more slowly than the human body.
What startles you, especially if you are a woman, is the presence everywhere of–women. Your sisters of six hundred years ago ride to the hunt with their menfolk. They are bold, stylish and confident in all sorts of settings. They read books. They play chess. You are particularly taken with a tapestry titled ‘Arithmetic’ in which a lady explains numbers and coins, with gracefully pointed finger, to a group of wide-eyed men. You have a sense that books and teachers have lied to you about the Middle Ages, that those centuries were not a long miserable period of ignorance, disease and oppression from which humankind had to be liberated by the Renaissance, but something else entirely. An age luminous and often light-hearted, with a deep understanding of and agreement with the natural world. A time when women, at least those of a certain class, were both equal and different, perhaps more respected than they are today outside Cluny’s walls…
But it’s not time to leave yet. There’s still Salle 13, saved for last, the room devoted to the Lady of the Unicorn. Six enormous red and gold and blue and green tapestries, fresh as a memory of spring. The Lady, always with Unicorn and Lion, in a field of flowers and animals, delighting in her five senses. Playing the clavier, pages held by her mysterious maidservant. Feeding her little parrot, showing the Unicorn its own image in a glass, accepting a bouquet from a monkey, holding the transfixed Unicorn’s horn. Finally, the sixth sense no one, fortunately, has ever reduced to a simple explanation: her hand hovers over the chest of spilling jewels held up by the maidservant. Either to take out more gems– or to lock them all away, because her heart senses something more precious.
The banner draped over her pavilion reads, ‘A mon seul desir.’