When I was 10-20 or so, I was hooked on unicorns. Unicorn books, china and glass unicorns, unicorn stickers, unicorns in art . . . It was probably the only “normal” thing about me, until the fad for all-things-unicorn passed but I kept collecting them and reading about them. Oops.
When I was still in high school, one of the adult choirs I sang with went to New York to perform at Lincoln Center (late 1980s.) Mom and I took one day and hopped on the bus (educational) and went from one end of Manhattan Island to the other to visit the Cloisters Museum. The Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum. In 1913 George Grey Barnard, John D. Rockefeller, J.P Morgan, and a few other guys bought four French church cloisters and moved them to New York. And added appropriate art, furnishings, and so on. When the museum opened in 1938, it became the home of the Met Museum’s medieval art and artifacts collection (not that the main location lacks medieval art, but this is more in situ.)
Why the Cloisters? The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry series. And the rest of the stuff, but it was the tapestries that I desperately wanted to see. And so we did. They were wonderful – as was the rest of the museum.
Fast forward to 2012 or so. Mom, Dad and I were wrapping up a tour of the highlights of France. It ended in Paris – which was miserably hot. As in the 90s. Street temps in the 100s. Not fun. But, one morning we skipped the official whatever and went across the Seine to the Muse´de Cluny. This is an old Cluniac monastery and church that is now a medieval art and artifacts museum. Why the Cluny? Well, because it had old stuff, in an old setting. And because of the Unicorn Tapestries. These are “The Five Senses,” the ones with the unicorn and lion holding standards, and the lady and her servant hearing, smelling, looking, and so on. We got shooed out of one gallery because the guard was going on break (ah, France), and hurried into the tapestry gallery. We were the only ones there.
You don’t walk straight into the gallery, but around a wall. The space is dimly lit and cool, in order to preserve the tapestries. They are displayed in a semi-circle, so you can stop and look at each one without blocking other people’s view.
I walked around the partition wall, saw the singing colors and designs, and wept. Tears rolled down my face as I stood there, truly awe filled. The weavings were so beautiful! So perfect! Everything I’d every hoped to see existed before my eyes. As I type this, I feel the awe once more, the sense of wonder. It wasn’t sacred wonder, like I’ve felt in some churches, or when worship does everything it should but so rarely does. No, this was . . . an echo? Something in me resonating with the art, like a perfectly tuned musical chord raising a harmonic. The tapestries are secular, not sacred, works, but something about them . . . My heart truly overflowed with joy. Not happiness, but joy, the deeper emotion.
The rest of the museum was quite good, and I learned a great deal. Of the museums I saw in Paris, I’d say I liked the Art of Northern Europe part of the Louvre, then the Cluny, then the Southern European section of the Louvre, in that order. I didn’t get to the Impressionist museum or the military history museum.