The Cloisters is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. The Cloisters at the Met is unique among the many museums of New York. Beyond the fantastic collection of artifacts that The Cloisters houses—sculpture, tapestries, manuscripts, metalwork, paintings, frescoes, stained glass and more—the very building and grounds themselves are part of the magic experience. This museum is a castle located on four acres overlooking the Hudson River in the Washington Heights neighborhood of northern Manhattan.
Although The Cloisters is a mere 30 minute subway ride from mid-town Manhattan, as you meander through the neo-Gothic walls and battlements of the surrounding Fort Tryon Park, you shed the present-day bustling pace and crushing crowds and enter a different time and place.
A cloister is a covered walkway that surrounds a courtyard, and was central to monastic life in the European Middle Ages. The monks came here to meditate, read aloud or to mouth the words of holy verses. The Cloisters incorporates portions of five medieval cloisters and other monastic sites, some replicas and some actual elements transported stone by stone from their original homes and reassembled onsite.
This magnificent structure houses approximately 5,000 treasures dating from 800 A.D., with an emphasis on the 12th through the 15th centuries. This period encompasses styles from the Romanesque to the late Gothic. The Chapter House from Notre-Dame-de-Pontaut Gascony, France. Each gallery represents a different time in the progression of art and architecture.
The Romanesque apse in the Fuentidueña Chapel has been on loan from the Spanish government since 1958. The architecture here in the Fuentideña Chapel an example of the heavily fortified walls and small windows reminiscent of that bold and clear style.
A Gothic chapel illustrates a style with tall fourteenth-century stained glass windows from Austria and graceful rib vaulted ceilings. The Gothic chapel also houses French and Spanish tomb effigies.
The Chapter House, a room where important meetings were held, contains elements of both Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
Among the many treasures in the collection at The Cloisters, perhaps the most famous are the Unicorn Tapestries, a group of exquisitely detailed wall hangings vividly portraying a mythical hunt and capture of a unicorn. Although the exact origin of the tapestries is unknown they are thought to have been designed in France and made in Brussels. The initials A and E (reversed) in the detail shown here may suggest a link to Anne of Brittany who was twice queen of France, but there are other theories as well.
The medieval plants in the Unicorn Tapestries are so accurately rendered that is has been possible to identify them. You will find over 250 species of plants grown in the Middle Ages in the lush Cloister gardens, including the plants from which the medieval weavers extracted their dyes for the tapestries’ yarns (madder, weld and woad), as well as “magic plants,” such as mandrake and downy thorn.
The spectacular Cloisters collection was started by George Grey Barnard, an American sculptor, who gathered art and other discarded ruins of medieval French buildings, and in 1914 built a gallery to display his treasures. In 1925, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased the entire collection for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, added some forty pieces from his own collection, and later donated the land which became Fort Tryon Park and The Cloisters. He also donated land across the Hudson River in New Jersey so that an unspoiled view would be preserved.
The Cloisters opened in 1938 and was designated an official New York City landmark in 1974. Rockefeller’s goal of “uplifting the value of beauty” certainly has been realized.
by Judy Stein