A Neolithic Venus figurine
This weekend, we left Paris to spend some time in a Renaissance-era castle where, among other things, we hung out with some prehistoric supermodels. Sort of.
The suburbs to the west of Paris are full of beautiful 19th and early 20th century houses, greenery, and riverscapes. They also have some impressive historical monuments. The most well-known is the Château de Versailles. The château of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, just a few miles (but two very different train lines) from the former, is closely tied to its more famous cousin.
There actually used to be two châteaux here, and the Château Neuf (new castle), built in the 1570’s, was the inspiration for former resident Louis XIV’s Versailles.
You can see the two castles, as well as the royal landscaping, in this model, located in the château’s chapel. The Château Neuf is the sprawling pink brick mass just above the two levels of colonnades. The Vieux Château, which is still standing today, is far in the central background:
Unfortunately, the Château Neuf was demolished in the 1660’s. Today, only the Vieux Château (Old Château), first constructed in the 1120’s by Louis VI, then rebuilt and modified over the centuries, (its present appearance dates to 1539, under François I, whose initials and royal symbol are sculpted in places throughout the castle) and a portion of the grounds, laid out by famous landscaper André Le Nôtre, remain. But this isn’t insignificant: the old château is a charming feast for the eyes.
Since 2005, the beautiful château has housed the Musée d'archéologie nationale (the National Archaeological Museum). Among its collection, which spans prehistoric times to the early Middle Ages, you’ll find other kinds of beauty.
But we have to get there first.
To do this, you need to take the RER A train line. The RER is a network of suburban trains. They’re easy to catch in Paris, and can be used for no extra fee if you take them from one stop to another within the city (this is often faster than taking the Metro, which, as opposed to the RER lines, stops frequently). To get outside the city, though, prices vary.
Taking the RER is like going into another world. Aboveground, you were probably surrounded by tree-lined boulevards and neutral-colored stone buildings, making up the harmony of Paris. But the RER’s décor has stayed true to the era when it was constructed, the 1970’s. If the streets of Paris are classical music, down here it’s carnival tunes, or New Age jazz.
Here, in one station, you can see rows of boxed-in red plastic seats:
It takes about twenty to thirty minutes to get to Saint-Germain-en-Laye from the last station in Paris, Charles de Gaulle-Etoile. When you emerge, you are immediately in a totally different time: Renaissance France.
The clipped and sculpted tree branches are typical of the French garden style. They probably look even more impressive with their leaves.
A view of the château from the gardens
This terrace, to the east side of the castle, probably hasn’t changed much over the centuries. But the view has! Today, you can see the skyscrapers of La Défense, the business center just outside Paris (left) – and the Eiffel Tower peeks its head and neck over the hill to the right.
When you enter the museum, you can go into the castle’s courtyard, a repetitive harmony of stone and brick, broken only by one wall, which ingeniously integrates the high windows of the chapel, built by Louis IX (Saint Louis) in the 1230’s.
The chapel was probably stunning once, but unfortunately many of its windows, including an enormous rose window, no longer have glass, and have been covered with stone instead. Outside, some centuries-old stone coffins are placed carefully around the base of the building. This one no longer had a lid. I found it sort of lovely to see clovers growing where a human body once lay.
The interior of the castle follows the brick-and-stone design of the outside, though in some rooms, it’s been modernized to fit the needs of the museum. Here, in what was once the ballroom, a gorgeous, enormous fireplace remains. On it you can see a bas relief sculpture of a salamander, the symbol of King François I.
What struck me most about the visit, though, and what often strikes me when I see ancient objects, is the connection we have with the past.
This time, what I most felt connected to was the idea of beauty and adornment.
That morning as we’d prepared to leave, I’d put on heavy clothes, since it was cold. I worried that I looked bulky or fat in them. I combed my hair into a retro-looking style that the boyfriend likes. I tried to find a necklace that would add a little color to my gray-and-black ensemble, and chose some blue stone beads I’d bought at the annual Gathering of Nations Pow-Wow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, two years ago.
In the museum’s prehistoric section, we came upon a display case of Venuses.
A “Venus” in prehistoric art is a small (usually only a few inches high) stone female figurine whose prized feminine features (breasts, belly, thighs, hips, backside) are usually exaggerated, while details like the head/face, arms, hands, and feet, are played down, or even eliminated. These figurines have been found in many prehistoric sites in Europe and Eurasia, and may be fertility talismans, representations of female deities, or even pornographic objects. What I love about them is that they celebrate the female form in all its glory - and variety (there are even skinny venuses). I’d gone to the museum feeling like my heavy layered skirts (I wore two!) weren’t flattering to my belly and thighs. Those venuses put that thought right out of my mind. I feel proud when I look at them, proud of my curves and of what they mean.
I thought the curve of the thigh on this Venus was really stunning:
Ancient jewelry also nearly always moves me. I mentioned my blue stone necklace. In several display cases, including this one, whose objects date to the Neolithic, I saw jewelry that looked so similar to mine.
It’s amazing how most of the necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings from ancient times look incredibly modern. These rings and bracelets, from the Bronze Age, are a little more eccentric-looking, but still, if we saw someone wearing them today, we probably wouldn’t bat an eye.
Whenever I see jewelry and objects like these, I also can’t help but think of the person or people who owned them. Long ago, they were clasped around the wrist or neck or finger of someone, long ago they touched skin that today is just bone, or dust. In a way, these pieces make me imagine life more vividly than any other kind of artifact. I touch the beads around my own neck, and feel connected to women who’ve lived before me. We may not have understood each other in many other ways, from our language, to our culture, to our beliefs – but we all wore jewelry. We could go through a market then or now and stop and admire the same pieces.
Speaking of pieces I admire, these fibulae (pins to hold a cape or scarf in place) from the 6th century AD, were found in the tomb of a Merovingian noblewoman.
They’re typical of Merovingian/Visigoth jewelry of that time, from the form (birds were a popular favorite) to the cloisonné technique. Though these might be a little more unusual-looking today, I’d still love to wear one, wouldn’t you?
Before leaving the house that morning, I’d put a little concealor on a reddish area over my nose. I’m not a huge makeup fan, but it is useful. Ancient Roman women, on the other hand, LOVED make-up. There was even a point when it became trendy to paint in the veins on your arms and wrists. Unfortunately, like the pipes they ingeniously used to have running water, a lot of Roman make-up contained lead. Many women had health problems due to this, though no one understood that at the time. It’s common to see Roman make-up applying accessories in museums that have objects from this culture, but I saw something in this museum that I hadn’t seen before: Because Roman make-up came in powder form, you needed an instrument to mash it up and put it on your face. I've seen other tools for this, I think, but this atypical choice surprised me: a well-sculpted marble finger!
I just know that if I’d been a wealthy woman in Ancient Rome (or, in this case, Romanized Gaul (France)), this would have been something I would have HAD to have. Every day I used it, I would have chuckled. When you think of the role sculpture had at the time, depicting deities and powerful government figures, and that it could then be used for something so frivolous – that’s rather cheeky. I wonder if the woman who owned this felt the same way? I hope she got just as much delight out of it as I did looking at it nearly two thousand years later.
Ancient mirrors are another thing that intrigue me – and the boyfriend, as well. Whenever we come upon one, we stare at its once-polished surface and wonder what faces it once reflected. These objects, once perhaps cruel judges of aesthetic, are now powerless.
A Gallo-Roman mirror, from the early centuries AD.
A mirror from the Bronze Age
We work so hard to be beautiful, but in the end, objects like these mirrors are sober reminders that physical beauty doesn’t last forever – though when we’re lucky, traces of it do survive, and come down to us through centuries and millennia, to admire and even connect with today.