Perhaps you’ve been to New York City many times and think you’ve “seen it all” — but you haven’t really, not if you’ve never been to The Cloisters.
Officially known as The Met Cloisters, this wonderful museum is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. It is devoted to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages, and specifically for the display of masterpieces from that long period in Christian Western Europe.
Oil baron John D. Rockefeller Jr. provided the money for the museum’s construction.
The two-story building contains architectural elements and settings relocated mostly from four French abbeys, which were dismantled, transported to New York, reconstructed and integrated with new construction in a project overseen by architect Charles Collins. Its design, layout and ambiance is intended to evoke a sense of medieval European monastic life.
The museum, which opened in 1938, holds about 5,000 works of art and architecture. It displays wood and stone sculptures, stained-glass windows, tapestries, paintings, triptychs of Gospel stories, illuminated manuscripts, lecterns, reliquaries, chandeliers, candlesticks, scepters, benches and chairs, and chalices, in its many rooms.
The Cloisters is located in beautiful Fort Tryon Park, located almost at the northern tip of Manhattan in Washington Heights — perhaps the reason it’s often overlooked. But it’s definitely worth the trip.
Take the “A” Eighth Avenue Express subway to 190th St. and then walk through the park, which overlooks the Hudson River, just north of the George Washington Bridge.
I was there on a chilly day just before Christmas, but it was a lovely place to stroll and take in the view.
The museum’s Romanesque Hall contains stone portals from French churches of the 12th and 13th centuries, and next door, the Fuentiduena Chapel displays a 12th-century Romanesque apse from the Church of San Martin de Fuentiduena in Segovia in today’s Spain.
The Saint-Guilhem Cloister has a late 12th-century carving from the French monastery of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, and also features sculptures from Italy and elsewhere in France.
The large Cuxa Cloister room contains pink stone elements from the French Benedictine Monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa in the Pyrenees. The garden features crossed paths and a central fountain.
The stone pieces in the Trie Cloister and Garden were created primarily for the Carmelite convent at Trie-sur-Baise in the Pyrenees. The garden invokes the milllefleurs background of medieval tapestries.
Take in the Early Gothic Hall, with 13th-century stained-glass windows from England, France and Germany, overlooking the Hudson River.
Stained-glass windows from the 15th-century Carmelite convent of Boppard-am-Rhein also dominate the Boppard Room, while windows from the same century, from a monastery in Sens, France, illuminate the Late Gothic Hall. This room also features altar pieces from Germany, Italy and Spain, along with a tapestry of the Burgos Cathedral.
Two magnificent tapestries rooms are among the jewels of the collection. The Nine Heroes room displays hangings created about 1400 for a member of the Valois court in France, portraying heroes from ancient, Hebrew and Christian history.
The Unicorn room tapestries, seven in number, depict the hunt and capture of a unicorn. They were probably woven in Brussels in the 15th century. Christian writings interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ.
In the Gothic Chapel, beneath stained-glass windows from 14th-century Austria are found carved images from royal and noble tombs of France and Spain.
The Glass Gallery and Treasury display small works of art, objects made of gold, silver, and silk, ivory carvings, and glazed luxury earthenware dishes. Included is a medieval illuminated manuscript of Saint Augustine’s City of God.
Next time, or the first time, you’re in New York, along with the many shows, sports attractions, and other museums, include The Cloisters in your visit, and appreciate the beauty of objects of devotion created in a religious age.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.