Sitting atop one of the highest points on the island of Manhattan, overlooking the palisades of the Hudson Valley stretching northwards, is the most convincing slice of Europe in New York—perhaps in the country. This is the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum, specializing in medieval art and architecture.
Like any great museum, the story of the Cloisters begins with a person and his vision. In this case we have George Grey Barnard, a European-trained sculptor and collector, who managed to acquire a large collection of medieval sculptures, pillars, and and tombs during his time in France. He did this by focusing on stones that had been the victims of pillage and war—often repurposed by local populations for mundane needs. This was an especially amazing feat, considering that Barnard—an exuberant and impulsive man—was not wealthy to begin with, and had terrible spending habits which often landed himself on the verge of financial ruin.
It was during one of his periodic pecuniary crises that he was forced to sell his collection to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a man who could hardly have been more different—puritanical, reserved, prudent. But the two men shared a love for medieval art; and Barnard’s collection was the first step towards Junior’s dream of opening a museum in this romantic niche of Manhattan.
Things moved rather swiftly with the world’s wealthiest man financing the project. After the acquisition of Barnard’s collection in 1925, Junior had Fort Tyron Park built around the chosen site (designed by the descendants of the designer of Central Park); then, he had substantial sections from abbeys in Catalonia and France shipped to New York, where they were incorporated into a single structure. The museum was then donated to the Metropolitan Museum, and the park to the city. The result is an oasis of medieval Europe in uptown Manhattan.
It is interesting to compare this museum to the one founded by Junior’s wife, Abby Aldrich: the MoMA. They are a study in contrast. The MoMA sits right in the center of the city, surrounded by activity and noise; its design is sleek and modern, with a vertical orientation and sterile white walls. The Cloisters is situated far from the city center; indeed it is somewhat inconvenient to visit the museum, since it is so out of the way. The surrounding park is quiet and bucolic, a haven from the noise and stress of city life. The museum building itself is an attempt to recreate the past: using traditional materials and techniques to mimic a bygone age. If the MoMA tries to break with tradition, the Cloisters tries to break with modernity. It is a wonder that Junior and Abby got along so well, since they had such diametrically opposed attitudes to art.
The Cloisters is exceptional in that the building itself is one of the main attractions. Whenever possible, the original materials have been integrated into the structure, creating a faux-monastery, complete with quasi-churches and pseudo-cloisters, where imaginary monks perform invisible rituals. There are several ornamented doorways, with sculptures climbing up the sides and crowning the top. Some walls display decorative friezes—Biblical scenes and medieval bestiaries—and the windows shine with colorful stained glass. The cloisters have authentic columns, complete with Romanesque capitals; and there are three gardens where rare plant species pertinent to the medieval mind are grown. (Apparently, the madonna lily is associated with love and fertility.)
As for the museum’s collection, on display are fine examples of every type of medieval plastic art: paintings, altars, carvings, sculptures, reliquaries, sarcophagi, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, and tapestries. For the most part these are not organized by medium or style, but by their architectural setting: they are placed to create a harmonious and authentic experience. Thus walking around the Cloisters is akin to exploring a great cathedral, whose every chapel contains distinct works of art, organized by religious themes rather than academic categories. The final effect is not an emphasis on any one piece in the collection, but on the collection as a gestalt: an integrated, aesthetically captivating space.
Nevertheless some pieces to stand out for special comment. One is the Mérode Altarpiece, whose central panel depicts the annunciation. It is a wonderful example of Dutch realism, showing a celestial scene taking place in a modest Dutch living room. I particularly like the Virgin’s round, plump face, and her carefree expression as she idly reads a book, not even bothering to look up at the angel bearing news of universal significance. In general the interior is convincingly painted—filled with fine detail, especially the book lying open on the table—but the perspective is a little uneven, as you can clearly see when comparing the table to the room. The kneeling figures of the donors are on the left-hand panel, looking appropriately wan and penitent. On the right, Joseph (looking considerably older than his wife) is busy at work as a carpenter; and behind him, through the window, we can see what is obviously a lovely Netherlandish town. (Biblical scholarship was not highly advanced in those days.)
Besides Rockefeller Junior, an important early donor to the museum was J.P. Morgan, who contributed a few items from his incomparable collection of rare manuscripts (most of which, however, he kept for his own museum downtown). Among these are the Cloisters Apocalypse, the Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, and the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux. This last is particularly impressive. A “book of hours” is a prayer book, usually made for wealthy patrons, containing prayers appropriate for different times of the day. In this case, Jeanne d’Evreux was the third wife of king Charles IV of France (reigned 1325-28); and the book was executed by the Parisian artist Jean Pucelle, who was a witty inventor of drolleries (the little designs that frame the text in an illuminated manuscripts). In any case, the book is a terrific example of gothic illumination.
Yet my favorite work—and I suspect the favorite of many others—is the famed Unicorn Tapestries. This is a series of seven tapestries, depicting the hunt, capture, and (possible) rebirth of a unicorn. Its provenance is mysterious: First recorded in the possession of La Rochefoucauld family many years after their creation, then looted during the French Revolution (reputedly used to cover potatoes), the tapestries were ultimately acquired by Rockefeller Junior, who adored them and could scarcely bear donating them to the museum. But eventually his charity prevailed over his aesthetic greed, and now the tapestries hang in the museum for all to see.
What is immediately striking is the quality of their workmanship and preservation. I have seen a fair number of tapestries by now, and most are not nearly as detailed nor as vibrant. Scholars debate nearly everything about the works—their meaning, their relationship to paganism and Christianity, and even the order in which they should be seen. Nevertheless some basic narrative is obvious. A group of hunters sets out in the forest; they encounter the unicorn by a well, surrounded by other beasts; they attack; the unicorn defends itself, killing a dog with its horn and kicking a man; but the unicorn is surrounded, killed, and brought back to the castle (apparently with its horn missing). But there is one tapestry that is difficult to account for, showing a unicorn standing inside a fenced enclosure, alive and with horn intact. Where does this image fit in? Should it go first or last? Does the unicorn come back to life?
This last interpretation makes some sense, considering that the unicorn was used as a symbol for Christ during the Middle Ages. Still, the metaphor of hunting a unicorn seems odd for symbolizing the path to Christian salvation. Are the hunters supposed to be those seeking Christ’s wisdom, or is this rather a metaphor for the passion and death of Christ? I can hardly give a coherent answer; but the ambiguity only adds to the tapestry’s magnetic power. Yet even as images alone, the series is compelling: the lush forest, the atmosphere of fantasy, the dynamic encounters with the unicorn.
I am spilling words on these exceptional works, yet I feel I am failing to do justice to this museum—whose effect is never dependent on the excellence of a single piece. Indeed you might say that the building itself is the greatest work on display. Despite being a melange of elements—incorporating churches and monasteries from different eras and different regions—the Cloisters convincingly brings the visitor into the Medieval mindset: of chivalry, romance, nobility, and, most importantly, Christianity. Indeed, arguably the architectural eclecticism of the museum accurately captures the feel of medieval religious structures, which were often built over hundreds of years and incorporated several different mediums and styles.
So if you have any interest at all in the Middle Ages, I highly recommend taking the A train uptown (190th street station) to visit this shrine to a bygone age.