Afternoon at The Cloisters
Two weeks ago today, we were in New York visiting assorted family members. Around 1:00 PM, we found ourselves in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side, with a few free hours. As I mentioned in this post, I voted to go down to the High Line, but Gail and Joel voted to head up to The Cloisters, so that’s what we did. And as I also observed, this turned out to be a wise choice, given the hot sun, the 90+ degree temperatures, and the high humidity. We would have wilted on the High Line, whereas we thrived at The Cloisters.
With the passage of time, I don’t have a whole lot to say anymore about the visit, but I do have some photos. Maybe I’ll mention our drive. We started at the Cloisters’ home base, the Metropolitan Museum, where our car happened to be. Up Madison we went, from 79th to 125th, turning left to cross the heart of Harlem. I had my doubts about this on a Saturday afternoon, with shoppers and traffic. Its lone advantage was that it was the simplest, most direct route, over to the west side and the Henry Hudson parkway, then up past the GW Bridge to Fort Tryon Park and The Cloisters. But that drive across 125th was exhausting. Double parked cars in the right lane. Left turners in the left lane. Buses swinging in and out. An empty bus on its way home blocking my view ahead much of the time.
Arriving at the park, we made a loop around The Cloisters, took in views across the Hudson to New Jersey, then parked on the south side and climbed up the hill to the entrance. Perhaps I should give some background. Let’s see what we can learn from the Cloisters’ website. There’s this:
The Cloisters museum and gardens, the branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe, was assembled from architectural elements, both domestic and religious, that date from the twelfth through the fifteenth century.
The building and its cloistered gardens—located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan—are treasures in themselves, effectively part of the collection housed there. The Cloisters’ collection comprises approximately three thousand works of art from medieval Europe, dating from about the ninth to the sixteenth century.
And from the history link, there’s more. I’ll quote the first few paragraphs, and leave the rest for you to find at the webpage, which also has the photo I’ve put at the top of the post.
The Cloisters museum and gardens, which opened to the public in 1938, is the branch of the Museum devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan, The Cloisters was assembled from architectural elements that date from the twelfth through the fifteenth century.
Located in a spectacular four-acre setting overlooking the Hudson River, the building incorporates elements from five medieval cloisters—Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Bonnefont-en-Comminges, Trie-en-Bigorre, and Froville—and from other monastic sites located in southern France. Three of the cloisters reconstructed at the branch museum feature gardens planted according to horticultural information found in medieval treatises and poetry, garden documents and herbals, and medieval works of art such as tapestries, stained-glass windows, and column capitals. Approximately three thousand works of art from medieval Europe, dating from the ninth to the sixteenth century and including exquisite illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, enamels, ivories, and tapestries, are exhibited in this unique context.
The modern museum building is not a copy of any specific medieval structure but an ensemble of spaces, rooms, and gardens that suggest a variety of artistic aspects of medieval Europe.
Much of the sculpture at The Cloisters was acquired by George Grey Barnard (1863–1938), a prominent American sculptor and an avid collector of medieval art. Barnard opened his original cloisters on Fort Washington Avenue to the public in 1914; through the generosity of philanthropist and collector John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874–1960), the Museum acquired the cloisters and all of their contents in 1925. By 1927, it was clear that a new, larger building would be needed to display the collection in a more scholarly fashion. In addition to financing the conversion of 66.5 acres of land just north of Barnard’s museum into a public park, which would house the new museum, Rockefeller donated 700 additional acres across the Hudson River to the state of New Jersey to ensure that no developments on the property would spoil the view from The Cloisters. In addition to providing the grounds and building to house the Barnard collection, Rockefeller contributed works of art from his own collection—including the celebrated Unicorn Tapestries—and established an endowment for operations and future acquisitions.
Wow! I didn’t know the part about Rockefeller Jr. giving New Jersey 700 acres so that the view wouldn’t be spoiled. I was indeed impressed with how beautiful it was, with just woods across the way. (I included my shot of the view in the earlier post. Here it is again.)
I forgot to mention as background for our little family vote that Joel had never been to the Cloisters. It had been decades since I was there, and years since Gail was. It’s a long way up from midtown if you don’t have a car, and not always the most pleasant drive if you do. But aside from our slow crawl across 125th, our drive was easy, and in any case, it’s worth it whatever the route.
Rather than writing in any detail about our visit, I’ll just put up some of the photos I took with my iPhone. Not high quality, but representative of The Cloisters’ glories.
Here’s a photo of one of the actual cloisters, with its beautiful plantings and some strangers passing through.
Here is a detail from a 15th century German oak sculpture of the death of the virgin, the central scene of an altarpiece from the workshop of Tilman van der Bruch.
I suppose the unicorn tapestries need no introduction, though if you want one, see here for lots of information. Below is a detail of the most famous of the tapestries, the unicorn in captivity.
And here is a detail from the unicorn at bay.
I’ll close with this wall painting of a camel from a Spanish monastery in the first half of the twelfth century.
Okay, one more:
These are scenes from the life of St. Augustine, from a Flemish painting, circa 1490, the central panel of a triptych. The left panel is lost; the right is in Ireland’s national museum.
The art alone is worth the detour. The magical setting is a bonus. So too, on a hot summer day, are the cool building and lovely outdoor spaces with plantings and views. Gail and Joel, thanks for outvoting me.