Yes indeed, the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame in Strasbourg is extraordinary. Normally, I wouldn’t give it all away in the title. In the course on blog writing that I took at NYU years ago that led me to start this blog, we were taught to create titles that inferred things, but drew the reader in to find out more. I am sure that the instructor, if he saw this title, would shake his head with disapproval. But what can I say? I will expand on this them, but without a doubt, this is the best museum I saw in Strasbourg, and maybe one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Therese had a half day to sightsee with me before going to her afternoon workshop. So we had begun the day by visiting the Strasbourg Notre Dame Cathedral (I will tell you all about that in a separate post). And since the museum is just across the plaza from the side of the cathedral, I had planned that this would be our first museum in Strasbourg.
The museum’s premise is that to save some of the most precious (and most fragile/vulnerable) parts of the cathedral building from the ravages of wars, religious and otherwise, these things were stored away. Originally, it is possible that the intention was to return these valuables to their positions in the cathedral after the fighting was over. But instead, what happened was that copies were made to take the place of the originals in and around the cathedral, and this museum was opened instead to house these jewels. And I say jewels because, well, take a look at stained glass above this paragraph. The richest colors I have ever seen, some of the most incredible stained glass I have ever seen, and from the twelfth century, no less. The surviving original windows in the cathedral may be just as impressive, but some are dirty, and all are positioned so far from the human’s eye view, that it is hard to get a good look at them. But here are some of those panels, just stupendously gorgeous, and just a foot from you. Wow.
Take this stained glass of the Virgin Mary, for example. Without question one of the most beautiful pieces of art I have ever seen. All those visitors to France who want to clamor around Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre can have it – just let me stare at this for hours. And again, my friends, this was created in the 12th century. Pretty incredible if you ask me.
Therese was as impressed as I was by the first few rooms within this museum. And free with our admission fee was an audio guide in English that gave lots of colorful description of the pieces collected in the museum.
In a small passage were collected these delightful dob statues – again, pieces that were removed from the facade of the cathedral.
The next large room contained many very interesting pieces of sculpture. The first that caught my eye were these two statues that go together of “the Church” and “the Synagogue.” Of course, in a time when only a few people could read, the statuary and stained glass windows in a cathedral were teaching tools. Here, for example, was an attempt to reinforce how Christianity was a redemption of Judaism, its predecessor. Synagogue is troubled with a veil literally over her face, and a posture of despair. Church looks at her with an attitude of triumph. I leave you with that – I do not share the lesson conveyed here, obviously, but I find it very interesting.
Next was a very curious group of virtuous and unvirtuous maids and the tempter who is trying to corrupt them. The virtuous maids hold a cup right side up, while the corrupted hold their cups upside down. The tempter looks attractive and wears a big smile, but when you look at his back, you see he is covered with serpents and toads, a vile disgusting creature.
The far end of the room was dominated by a large triangular piece of stone figures, which was lifted (or at least what remained of it was lifted after a good deal of damage had already been done) from the facade of the cathedral. Above you see what has been saved in the museum, including the many curious gargoyles and monsters adoring its many crevices. Here is the section of the western front of the cathedral with the triangles many figures reconstructed:
So you get an idea from this of how much damage was done by war over the centuries in Strasbourg.
Therese accompanied me this far in the museum, but it was now time for her to head to her workshop, which was taking place at the Strasbourg Sofitel. We left the museum (the attendant at the desk assured me I could return later in the day if I wished) and had some lunch in the middle of the city, and then I walked her to the hotel, and decided I would return to the museum to see how much more the collection entailed. And in short, it entailed a great deal more than I expected.
First, I spent more time in the rooms we had already seen. For example, while I have already shared with you some of the stained glass on display, I had to take more photos and share them with you. I am crazy for the medieval ornament, and to see these many examples, so close up and in such vivid bright colors, was such a privilege. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
Then there were other details, such as a trefoil, on display, as well was a sorrowful crucifixion scene and a panel of the Archangel Gabriel (I have given you a close up of the delicated piece of glass depicting his face).
After passing once again through the large room with the triangle from the cathedral face, there was the opportunity to go in one of two directions. To the right was the museum garden, so I decided to go there first. Strasbourg’s weather is a bit cooler than, say, Paris, but in mid-July it was still pretty warm (and sticky), and this museum like the vast majority of buildings in Europe was un-air-conditioned. So it was nice to leave behind the warm museum for some cool fresh air in the garden. And I enjoyed getting to see the outside of one of the sections of the museum that resembles a half-tempered house.
Returning to the museum, the other direction took me to a staircase to a passage upstairs. From this point onwards, most of the collection is no longer pieces saved from the cathedral – rather, it consists of art (much but not all of a religious nature) precious to the region. First, I saw a room filled with ceramics that were made in or near Strasbourg – for example, apparently for some reason it was popular at one time to make glasses in the shape of a pineapple.
Next was perhaps the second most precious collection of artworks in the museum (after the twelfth-century stained glass saved from the cathedral I had seen downstairs). This was several stained glass windows saved from Strasbourg’s Sainte-Madeleine Church. The church was completed in the fifteenth century, but sadly was burned to the ground in 1904. A meticulous effort was undertaken to rescue individual pieces of glass after the fire and painstakingly reconstruct them into full windows. As you can see, the artwork, by a famous stained glass artist of the time named Peter Hemmel, is superb. In a completely different style from the earlier stained glass in the museum’s collection, these windows nevertheless contain once again the most vivid colors, enlivening scenes such as that of Christ washing the disciples feet, seen here and at the beginning of this post.
On these upper floors were displayed several examples of local highly esteemed artists who worked in Strasbourg or were born there. For example, one room celebrated the famous Renaissance sculptor Nikolaus Gerhaert van Leyden.
Alongside his masterpiece “Man Meditating” (which some have said is a self-portrait) are other splendid late-15th century small sculptures, such as one of an elderly man that I really loved.
Some unattributed works in the collection were equally impressive, such as the painting of the Virgin in a Garden and a series on the popular Medieval/Renaissance subject of St. Ursula and her Companions.
On a number of occasions, I was reminded that the building that contained this museum was as impressive, as worthy of my attention, as the artworks displayed in its rooms. The bare wooden rafters, ancient and simple, were lovely to see, and the spiral staircases that offered the most speedy way in and out of the museum were also lots of fun (if a bit tricky to negotiated).
A second celebrated artist of local repute represented on these upper floors is Hans Baldung Grien. His Portrait of a Young Man is (just as with the Gerhaert sculpture) considered to be a self-portrait.
The paneled room pictured above was not the only room in the museum similarly decorated in a period manner. It looked like it would be a wonderful place to pass an afternoon with a good book and a cup of hot (or iced) tea.
I would not have been so crass, however, as to consider pouring my beverage into one of the lovely glasses I saw on display in the next room. The one that fascinated me the most was the cobalt blue blown glass of some sort of fanciful mythic creature which I gather is something you pour your wine into to then put ice into the second opening for cooling your drink.
Finally, at the end of an incredibly fruitful afternoon’s exploration, I arrived at the last, quite large room, one filled with furniture, whose windows were decorated with a number of later stained glass pieces saved from the cathedral. I was so satisfied to have seen such an extraordinary collection of art, grateful that there were those who had had the foresight to save this art from the destruction of war, and happy that others had the generosity of spirit to allow these works to be displayed for our enrichment.