Gleams of Light
From the ‘Dark Ages’
The “Dark Ages” weren’t as dark as all that, judging by the all gleaming gold in the exhibition “The Merovingian Age” at the Musée de Cluny. It must be the gold, always a crowdpleaser, that attracted so many people to the exhibition on the day I saw it, making it even harder to see the multitude of small pieces on display behind glass and read the descriptive texts in tiny print, often placed far from the objects they described, necessitating a great deal of squinting and craning.
Still, I recommend that anyone with an interest in the period pay a visit the show, which will close in a couple of weeks, full as it is of fascinating, rarely seen pieces from that faraway time between the sixth and 14th centuries that has been given such a bad rep ever since Petrarch classified it as a “Dark Age.” Today the politically correct qualification for the period is “Early Middle Ages.”
In what is now France, a new world was blossoming with the expansion of Francia, or the Kingdom of the Franks (481–843), founded by Clovis I. By the time the kingdom came to an end, it took in most of today’s France and much of what we now know as Germany and Italy. Roman influences lingered, tempered by Germanic and Anglo-Saxon practices and the spread of Christianity. The kingdom was ruled for most of that time by the Merovingian Dynasty, founded by Childeric I, the father of Clovis I, in the mid-fifth century.
The sophistication of the 150 objects on show here, many of them from the treasures of Childeric, Clovis and Dagobert, are enough to refute the “darkness” of the age, at least for the elite. There are some amazing survivors, notably a simple linen tunic belonging to Queen Bathild, wife of Clovis II, dating from the middle of the seventh century, embroidered in silk with a jewelled cross, a reminder of her royal origins even though she had retired to a convent and taken a vow of poverty at the end of her life. Next to it is a jeweled gold cross that could have served as a model for the embroidered version.
One of the most famous objects on show is the much-restored throne of Dagobert, who is mocked in the still-sung 18th-century song
“Dagobert’s throne” (ninth century). © Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
“Le Bon Roi Dagobert” as the kind of idiot who ends up being chased by a rabbit when he goes hunting. This symbolic throne was last used by Napoleon in 1804.
Napoleon also tried to drape himself in some of the glory of the Merovingians by appropriating one of their symbols: the bee. Two garnet-set
Bees from Childeric’s tomb, probably used to decorate a harness. © Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
gold bees from the pagan grave of Childeric I are on show here. Childeric himself was buried with the attributes of different powers: the cloak and fibula of a Roman officer, a lance held in his right hand like a Byzantine emperor, a plaited Germanic hairstyle and a solid-gold bracelet of the type used by barbarian princes, making him something of a one-man European Union.
Childeric I was also buried with 30 sacrificed horses, a custom probably picked up from the princes of the steppes during his eight-year exile in Thuringia, where Gregory of Tours says he was sent as punishment for messing around with too many of the wives of the Salian Franks he led. That didn’t stop him from stealing the wife of his fellow exile, King Basin, when he returned to France. Queen Basina became the mother of Clovis I and three other children.
In addition to these relics, there are sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, coins, royal documents on parchment, ivory carvings and glassware. Among other notable pieces are a helmet, probably made in Italy, found on the site of the sixth-century Battle of Vézeronce; a
Votive cross from the treasure of Guarrazar (mid-seventh century).© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de Cluny-Musée National du Moyen Âge)/Michel Urtado
splendid votive crown and cross; and even shoes and stockings reputed to have belonged to Saint Germain.
There is much that is fascinating here, and everything that glitters really is gold; it is just very hard to see. I recommend that, like one visitor I saw at the show, you bring a monocular (a sort of mini-telescope or half a pair of binoculars) to get a good look at the exhibits. And let us pray that one day museum curators and designers will take visitors into consideration when displaying objects and their labels.
Musée de Cluny-Musée National du Moyen Âge: 6, place Paul Painlevé, 75005 Paris. Métro: Cluny-La Sorbonne. Tel.: 01 53 73 78 16. Open Wednesday-Monday, 9:15am-5:45pm. Closed Tuesday. Admission: €9. Through February 13. www.musee-moyenage.frFavorite