Museum Tourist: Musée national du Moyen Âge

Usually I write about museums with some kind of science component. But let me tell you about the Musée national du Moyen Âge – the museum of the Middle Ages in Paris.

You know those tapestries with the lady and the unicorn? There’s a lady and a unicorn and a lion. They stand against a rich red background covered with flowers and frolicking woodland creatures. You know these. Right? Look at the pictures on Wikipedia so we’re all on the same page here, because my pictures are too awful to share. The tapestries are in a dim room and my camera can only do so much.

Sometimes, even if you know a piece of art from countless reproductions and parodies, when you finally get to see it in person, it’s a million times better. Suddenly it’s obvious why it’s famous. The Starry Night is like that. So are The Scream and Lady with an Ermine. (On the same trip to Paris, I learned that the Mona Lisa isn’t that much better in person than in reproduction, mostly because of the bullet-proof glass and seething mob of tourists.)

Some of the critters on the sixth tapestry.

In person, these tapestries are stunning. Each represents one of the five senses. In the tapestry that features hearing, the lady plays an organ. In taste, she takes a candy from a plate. They saturate your sense of sight with the rich colors, the animals’ charming facial expressions. The figures look so vibrant and alive, it’s as if the lion and the unicorn and all the other little creatures might come down off the walls and start frolicking.

Another thing that’s much more obvious in person is the results of restoration. When the museum got the tapestries in 1882, the bottoms had been ruined by humidity. They were rewoven in the same colors, but the yarn has faded; the chemical dyes of the late 19th century just weren’t as good as the natural dyes of the late 15th.

The 15th century. Can you imagine? These tapestries were woven when Copernicus was alive. I love to knit, and I hope that people will keep my shawls and scarves and hermit crabs around for a long time, but I don’t expect my textiles to last 500 years. The tapestries were commissioned by a wealthy merchant from Lyons between 1484 and 1500. The family had “pretensions to nobility,” according to the information sheet in the gallery.

And there are their pretensions to nobility, still on the wall after all this time. I sat on a bench in the darkened room and stared at them, gaping, for more than 20 minutes.

There were other things in the Medieval Museum, and a lot of them were really cool, but for about 10 minutes after I left the tapestries, I didn’t even want to look at anything else. It would have messed with the memory. I actually stood in other rooms with my eyes closed while I waited for my boyfriend.

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8 Responses to Museum Tourist: Musée national du Moyen Âge

  1. Lila says:

    I love the last line of this, Helen. It really captures the feeling of those tapestries. They were one of the “OHMYGOD” moments of our trip to Paris years back. We hadn’t even known about this museum and then there we were in this incredible, somehow deeply moving experience of that one room.

  2. Helen says:

    I didn’t know about it, either, and I don’t remember why we went. But it was so great!

  3. Willy says:

    As a former museum professional, I have to admit, I’m not really keeping my Helen Fields Hermit Crab in archival conditions. A little too much direct sunlight for preservation.

  4. Helen says:

    Uh-oh. You know, that is the one and only Helen Fields hermit crab.

  5. I love these tapestries! I saw them in person many years ago, and hope to return. In the meantime, I have small reproductions of three of them in my bedroom.

    Did you notice the monkey? Apart from the unicorn, he’s my favorite, because…monkey, obviously! He’s only in a couple of the tapestries, including “A Mon Seul Desir” and Taste.

  6. Helen says:

    Yes!! I love the monkey! I thought of you in this museum because they have a really awesome green man – oh, I tagged you in that on Facebook, didn’t I? Anyway, lovely place.

  7. By the way, I mention these tapestries in an article I wrote on unicorns for Realms of Fantasy magazine. It’s available here:


    Also, have you been to the Cloisters in NYC? Amazing unicorn tapestries (though I like the Cluny’s better), and also an awesome pair of green wild men, one of which appears in the banner above the unicorn article I linked to above. Field trip to NYC!

  8. Harshita says:

    Mental note: I shall visit this museum the next time I’m in Paris. Your post makes me want to travel tomorrow!