Something For Everyone at Lyon’s Museum of Fine Art

Museum of Fine Arts, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, France

Knowing that Lyon is one of France’s most culturally significant towns, I had high hopes for its Museum of Fine Art.

The museum is housed in an important former abbey, which has its origins in the 6th century.  In 1659, the abbess Anne de Chaulnes began construction of the Royal Abbey of the Sisters of St Pierre, to a design by Royers de la Valfenière.  It was completed in 1685, and housed about 30 nuns, most of whom were of aristocratic stock, and the abbey was among the wealthiest in France, thanks in part to the revenue that came from store rentals.

With the French Revolution, the nuns were expelled – as happened all over France – and the council decided to use the building as a museum for medals, bronzes and other art.  In 1801, Lyon was one of the 15 cities granted permission to establish an art collection.  Two years later, the Louvre sent 110 paintings to the new Museum of Fine Art, but the building also housed the local archaeology and natural history collections.  On Wednesdays, from 10 till 1, the museum was open to the public, and over the next couple of decades the collection grew thanks to donations and purchases.  From 1875 to 1900, the museum embarked on buying spree, acquiring much of the non-painting collection that is on show today.  The museum underwent a major renovation in the ’90s, reopening in 1998.  Since then, it seems to have been untouched and its age is starting to show.

Despite the fact that in the 1960s the museum lost many collections that it previously housed (like the local Roman artefacts which went to the purpose-built Gallo-Roman Museum – now renamed the Lugdunum Museum), there is still a lot here.  In fact, the name ‘Fine Arts’ is a bit misleading, because there are a great deal of ancient works, as well as items which could be classified as ‘ethnological’.  The mix is good and representative of the cultures they explore, and there is likely to be something here for everyone.

Egypt

The first section on Ancient Egypt had some fantastic objects on show.  The lighting, however, was unbelievably low – I get the need for protection, but this was ridiculous – there was one Fayum shroud which was utterly obscured.  At first I thought there were blown lightbulbs, but I think this is the way they wanted it.  This is a shame, because you can’t really appreciate what you can’t see…

Near East

In a smallish collection of objects from the ancient Near East there were quite a few beautifully engraved stamps which were quite difficult to see because of their display.  Why do objects with small details always get put far away?  Anyway, it was great to see Palmyran art, and interesting to find something from Dura Europos – which is most famous now for its extraordinary 3rd century synagogue.

Greek

A fine little collection of Greek objects was topped off by a particularly lovely range of terracottas from Tanagra but some beautiful pots too.  Since they usually don’t photograph very well, I’ve not included many examples, but they’re worth exploring in real life.

Etruscan and Roman

The Roman remains of old Lyon are in the Gallo-Roman Museum on the other side of town.  Here, you get the Roman objects that come from other places – like Rome – that were brought in, rather than excavated locally.  The collection isn’t huge, but there were some interesting finds, including the beautiful little funerary urn of Hostilius Nestor August.  The Etruscan objects were also interesting – I loved the glass figure of the cat/squirrel.  The tag said cat – I say squirrel.

Medieval

In some ways the most striking collection was of medieval sculptures.  These came from other parts of France as well as the rest of Europe, and highlighted quite well the uniqueness of certain artistic traditions – and the universality of others.  I’m always a fan of the art of the Low Countries, but there were also some lovely German statues.

Middle East

Another small gallery with a good run of Middle Eastern objects, like Iznik tiles and plates.  I had my fill of these during my time in Turkey, and I’m very selective about the pieces I look at, so just because it didn’t take my attention, it doesn’t mean very much.  I am super-fond of Iranian pottery, and they had some cute examples on show, alongside some other interesting cultural bits and pieces.

Asia

Again, this wasn’t the biggest section, and in the end it consisted of more objects that were made in Asia for European trade.  For some, this might not be so interesting – for me, this is fascinating, largely thanks to the highly educational experience of going round the Lisbon museums which showed the amazing artistic-cultural-mixing that went on in places like Goa and Macao.  The tapestries from Macao were the most fascinating of what was on display in this way, because of the mix of a European model for the image, but the very eastern elements, like the depiction of the waves.

Paintings

The art collection wasn’t as large as I expected.  Admittedly a lot wasn’t to my taste (those large French academic paintings), but even so I thought maybe we’d missed something.  Having said that, there was some real gems – it’s always a privilege to see a Gerard David and the Rembrandt was quite hilarious.  It looks like he just did variations of his own face for all the figures.

Incidentally, the modern statues are in what used to be the Church of St Pierre which, as a design, dates from the 18th century.  It was deconsecrated in 1907 and has been incorporated into the museum, so that it doesn’t look remotely church-like.

So In Summary

While the museum had many fine and fascinating objects, there was something slightly un-loved feeling about the place.  The displays were slightly drab, and the staff were mostly sullen, sometimes surly.  I found it a disappointing experience overall, although as I say, the collection was pretty fab.

I think it might be time for another re-vamp…

Further Information

The website is available in multiple languages, including English: www.mba-lyon.fr

There are regular exhibitions held at the museum, so it’s worth checking that out before you go.

As you enter the museum’s main entrance on the other side of the cloisters, you’ll notice there is a Refectory on the left.  We weren’t allowed to enter when we went, but it’s apparently a Baroque gem, with stucco work and some paintings by Cretey.

How To Get There

The museum is easy to reach by foot, but the public transport is so good in Lyon, it’s easy to reach by various means.  The city’s transport website is available in English, and helpful: www.tcl.fr

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Museum of Fine Art

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Museum of Fine Art 45.766990, 4.833614

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