It’s the ultimate phallic symbol.
When Siegmund (in Act I of Wagner’s opera “Die Walkure”) pulls the sword from the tree and ecstatically embraces his twin sister we know that incest is just around the corner.
“The Sword -- Uses, Myths and Symbols,” a show at the Musee de Cluny in Paris, includes the weapon that allegedly belonged to Jeanne d’Arc. It’s the exception that confirms the rule: The sword was emblematic of an all-male universe.
The 120 or so exhibits trace its history throughout the Middle Ages with digressions into more recent times.
It was the Vikings who, in the sixth century, gave the sword its definitive form, characterized by four components -- the pommel, the grip, the hilt and the blade. The Vikings were also the first to forge the blade from carbonized iron.
Before guns made them obsolete, swords were an essential part of a knight’s equipment. The higher his rank, the more he insisted on decoration and elegant shape.
There are some remarkable specimens in the show, such as the hunting rapier of Rene d’Anjou, King of Naples (1409-80), or the sword of Philip the Fair (1478-1506), the first Habsburg king of Castile and father of Charles V.
The symbolic use is even more telling. In the rituals of European monarchies, the sword played an essential role. The most important piece in the exhibition is “Joyeuse,” also called “Charlemagne’s Sword,” which was used during the coronation of French kings up to the 19th century.
The third part of the show is devoted to the role of swords in Christian legend and national mythology. Here is Durendal, the weapon of the hero of the “Chanson de Roland,” who died in a battle against the Saracens, and the sword with which George, England’s patron saint, killed the dragon.
Neither, of course, is a historical character.
In the case of Cosmas and Damian, the patron saints of physicians, the sword that is attributed to them symbolizes their martyrdom: They were beheaded during the persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian.
The violent death of another martyr, Thomas Becket, is depicted on an enameled reliquary from the 13th century. An ink drawing from a manual for young nuns is more fun. It portrays “Humility piercing the belly of Pride.”
Two executioners’ swords from Germany remind you of the fact that beheadings didn’t vanish with the Roman Empire. Before the arrival of the guillotine, the sword vied with the ax for precedence: Anne Boleyn was decapitated with a sword, Mary Stuart with an ax.
“L’Epee -- Usages, Mythes et Symboles” is at the Musee de Cluny, 6 Place Paul Painleve, through Sept. 26. Information: http://www.musee-moyenage.fr.
If the exhibition has whetted your appetite, you can find two dozen swords from the Renaissance at the Chateau d’Ecouen, 20 kilometers north of Paris. That show also runs through Sept. 26. Information: http://www.musee-renaissance.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)