The golden age of the Middle Ages: the time of the cathedrals

The 13th century is the century of cathedrals, whose vaults rise ever higher towards the sky: 33 meters for Notre Dame of Paris, 37 meters for Notre-Dame de Chartres and 38 meters for Reims Cathedral. Always higher, such was the motto of the Gothic architects until the nave of Beauvais, thrown more than 48 meters, collapsed in 1284. Their sculpted facades are designed like a book of stone, an offering of beauty destined to God as to the faithful: they celebrate Christ, from the Incarnation to the Resurrection, as well as his mother, Our Lady according to the courteous vocabulary, who becomes the great celestial intercessor, the “lawyer of humanity” between men And God.


The Virgin and Child, a central iconography

Praised through the painted and sculpted decorations of churches, Mary and her Son are also praised in the form of statuettes of gold, gilded silver, ivory or wood, such as the famous Virgins and Child presented in the collections of the museum. Carved from an imposing ivory tusk, the magnificent Virgin, holding the Child on her knees, bears witness to the beginnings of the art of Parisian ivory workers.

The face of the Virgin, like the folds of her veil and her mantle, underlines the great delicacy of the work of the sculptors. Mother of Christ, Mary is also present during his Passion, which are represented by the very beautiful crosses, goldsmithed or enamelled, such as the double-sided Cross also known as the Cross of Bonneval. On a golden background dotted with flowers and stars, this processional cross presents the enamelled figures of the crucified Christ, flanked by Mary and Saint John.

The relics of Saint Louis

In the 13th century, religion and faith were consubstantial with the daily lives of individuals and society. The king himself derives his power from God through the anointing of the Holy Chrism. Louis IX (Saint Louis), who reigned from 1226 to 1270, further increased the sanctity of the monarchy through the acquisition of the relics of the Passion of Christ, Crown of Thorns and True Cross, purchased from the Latin Emperor of Constantinople , Baudoin II, in 1238 and 1241. Within his palace, on the Ile de la Cité (the “royal palace”), he had the Sainte-Chapelle built to house them, celebrating through this wall of light the stained glass windows the kings of the Old Testament in the continuity of which it is placed. Paris becomes a new Jerusalem and the kingdom of France, a new Holy Land, guardian of the most prestigious relics of Christianity, the King of France is transformed into “treasurer of Christ” and acquires a sacred aura unequaled in the West.

The kingdom in the 13th century also experienced great prosperity in all areas: demographic and urban growth, agricultural prosperity, artisanal and commercial dynamism. A new elite, made up of great merchants and craftsmen, affirmed its power. To meet the spiritual needs of this ever-growing “city people”, the mendicant orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and Augustinians) set up their convents in urban centers. Living in poverty and humility and practicing preaching, they enjoyed immense success throughout Christendom. New Christ, Saint Francis had received the stigmata before his death in 1226, which is represented by the fragment of the enamelled reliquary dedicated to the saint.

Capetian Golden Age

The 13th century is also that of the “Capetian golden age”. In just over a century (from Philippe Auguste to Philippe IV le Bel), the kingdom of France became a powerful state, capable of occupying one of the leading positions in late medieval Europe. Paris is its heart. Residence and royal capital, it is also a major economic, cultural and artistic center. Its university, the Sorbonne, centered on the teaching of theology, mother of all sciences, is one of the most prestigious in the western world.

Historiated shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, early 13th century, Paris, Cluny museum - national museum of the Middle Ages © RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

Historiated shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, early 13th century, Paris, Cluny museum – national museum of the Middle Ages © RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

The king affirms his power thanks to his territorial acquisitions, carried out by conquest (Normandy, taken over by Philippe Auguste in 1204), or thanks to a skilful matrimonial policy. After several years of war between the King of France and Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse, the marriage of Alphonse de Poitiers, brother of Louis IX, and Jeanne, the count’s daughter and sole heiress, sealed the reconciliation between the two parties. and allows, in the long term, to incorporate the Toulousain into the kingdom.

The head of the recumbent figure of Jeanne de Toulouse, presented in the museum’s collections, is one of the masterpieces of medieval sculpture. Falling ill in Italy on her return from the crusade led by Saint Louis in Tunis, the Countess died on August 25, 1271, four days after her husband.

A medieval masterpiece

The recumbent figure as a widow, the face tightly enclosed by the strips of fabric of the wimple and by a veil held in place by a flowered head circle. The modeling of the face is of great refinement, despite the disappearance of the nose.

Mask of the recumbent figure of Jeanne de Toulouse.  Paris region, circa 1275-1280, from the abbey church of Gercy in Varennes-Jarcy (Essonne), Lutetian limestone, 24.5 x 24.5 x 9 cm, Cluny museum © Wikimedia Commons / AcomaMask of the recumbent figure of Jeanne de Toulouse.  Paris region, circa 1275-1280, from the abbey church of Gercy in Varennes-Jarcy (Essonne), Lutetian limestone, 24.5 x 24.5 x 9 cm, Cluny museum © Wikimedia Commons / Acoma

Mask of the recumbent statue of Joan of Toulouse, Paris region, circa 1275-1280, from the abbey church of Gercy in Varennes-Jarcy (Essonne), Lutetian limestone, 24.5 x 24.5 x 9 cm, Cluny museum © Wikimedia Commons / Acoma

The effigy of Pierre, Count of Alençon, although acephalous, is also one of the great successes of sculpture at the end of the 13th century, as underlined by the slight animation of the folds of the overcoat. This effigy belonged to a series of six statues of children of Saint Louis buried in the Dominican Priory of Poissy, founded by Philippe IV le Bel in memory of his grandfather.

The affirmation of royal power also passed through the rediscovery of Roman law, which conferred on the monarch all the attributes of Roman imperial power, in particular the power to legislate. Roman law is known in the West by the Justinian Code (emperor of the 6th century), frequently glossed over in the 13th century, as evidenced by one of the sheets presented by the museum.

The illumination shows a man cutting down a tree that risks damaging his home. By the gesture of his hand, the character who represents authority, richly dressed and equipped with gloves, proves him right. The 13th century was thus that of a golden age in France before the appearance, in the following century, of the three great “plagues of the Apocalypse”: famine (from the start of the 14th century), war (in from 1337) and the Great Black Death (1348).

The Sainte-Chapelle, a treasure trove of relics

Few medieval monuments enjoyed as quickly and durably such a celebrity as that which surrounded the Sainte-Chapelle. Wanted by Louis IX to house the insignia relics of the Crown of Thorns that the sovereign had bought at great price from Emperor Baudoin II through the Venetians in 1239, the monument was built in record time between 1241-1243 and 1248, date of its consecration.

Apse of the upper level of the Sainte-Chapelle, 13th century AD.  JC, Paris © Xuan NguyenApse of the upper level of the Sainte-Chapelle, 13th century AD.  JC, Paris © Xuan Nguyen

Apse of the upper level of the Sainte-Chapelle, 13th century AD. JC, Paris © Xuan Nguyen

The construction of this palatine chapel, served by a college of canons, was credited to the greatest architects of the time (Pierre de Montreuil, Robert de Luzarches, Thomas de Cormont) but these attributions all seem very questionable. Conceived as a gigantic monumental reliquary of stone and glass (also maintained by an invisible iron structure), the upper chapel was organized around an eastern gallery supporting the relics of the Passion of Christ, which the sovereign accessed directly by borrowing a covered gallery from his residence in the palace.

Guardians of these relics, twelve stone apostles adorned the fallout from the columns of each of the building’s six bays. Deposited in 1797, after the chapel had been transformed for a time into an archive repository, they experienced a chaotic journey and, during the extensive restorations carried out by Félix Duban, Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc from 1836, several of them reached the collections of the Cluny museum while others, generously repainted, returned to the building. Today we identify the activity of three anonymous masters that it would be useless to try to distinguish here. The magnificent apostles in the museum are first and foremost a precious testimony to this Parisian sculpture from the middle of the 13th century, a period identified by art historians as a moment of classical balance and grace in so-called radiant Gothic art, under the reign of a sovereign soon destined to be recognized as a saint (Louis IX becoming Saint Louis in 1297).

Narthex of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris © Wikimedia Commons / Gennadii SausNarthex of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris © Wikimedia Commons / Gennadii Saus

Narthex of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, 13th century AD. JC, Paris © Wikimedia Commons / Gennadii Saus

The museum also preserves many fragments of the stained glass windows of the upper chapel. There, the extraordinary colorful deployment of the glazed surfaces aimed to place the spectator facing the lights of the heavenly Jerusalem as well as to establish the authority of the biblical story through the figurative overabundance of these innumerable scenes which establish a typological relationship between the Ancient and the New Testament in which the second is conceived as the fulfillment of the promises contained in the first (Samson tearing the lion’s mouth is interpreted as an announcement of Christ’s victory over the devil). Now bringing together the medieval decorations of the Sainte Chapelle in the same room, the Cluny museum reveals to everyone the splendor of the capital of the kingdom around the reign of Saint Louis.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.