The Cloisters

As a medieval history buff I usually have to be content with seeing a bit of sculpture here, a painting or two there, and occasionally a bit of architectural chunk on display against a stark and modern museum wall. Even when there is a museum program or special featured showing it’s rare that examples of medieval anything are shown in a setting that attempts to emulate the place and setting that the original pieces were created for or existed in so elegantly.

So you can imagine my delight to finally be able to soak in a more proper medieval atmosphere when we eagerly ventured last Saturday to Upper Manhattan to visit The Cloisters, a rare example of period art existing in and exhibited within period-authentic surroundings.

As a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and thus subject to the Met’s vast resources, The Cloisters is a unique example of one man’s vision to bring the best of European Medieval art and architecture within reach of the everyman in America. Designed and built in 1938 as a representative structure to hold medieval works of art, The Cloisters provides a unique setting transcending the usual experience one gets from viewing such relics from the Dark Ages in cold, generic museum rooms. We can all thank John D. Rockefeller Jr. for providing the generous gifts of land, building, and initial collection of medieval art and architecture, as well as tapestries, ceramics, metalwork, stained glass, and much more. The Met has continuously built on the initial collection through the years developing a unique experience for anyone interested in art and architecture of medieval Europe.

We arrived at the site after a long and somewhat confusing subway ride. That Saturday being our first full day in New York after our long bus ride from New Hampshire, we weren’t quite subway savvy enough to get there quickly. As great a conveyance as the subways of NYC are, there are equally confusing to a newbie rider. We confused the express trains with locals and exited what would have been a quick ride out to Fort Tryon Park and The Cloisters only to wait for train after train until we figured out the right train to take…which was the exact same run we hastily exited earlier while fearing we would overshoot our destination. After finally arriving at the 190th street exit and taking an alarmingly long elevator ride to the surface (one forgets how far underground some of these subway tunnels really are), we exited into a bright and brisk blue sky ready for our short walk to The Cloisters.

Fort Tryon and The Cloisters sit on the end of a high cliff overlooking the Hudson River on one side and Inwood on the other side far below. We were suprised by the views because it all looked so flat on the map! Our subway adventure made us hungry though, and although the cafe at The Cloisters was seasonal closed, we discovered the delightful New Leaf Cafe, a Bette Midler/New York Restoration Project providing a gourmet treat to park and museum visitors. A welcomed lunch of butternut squash soup followed by a duck and wild mushroom panini was capped off by a New York cheesecake topped with fresh raspberries. Thus sated, we finally made our way up to The Cloisters.

Some of you who’ve had the chance to visit medieval-period monasteries in France or England may scoff at what essentially is a man-made replica of a typical monastic compound, but the results of what Rockefeller and the Met have accomplished is still a delightful way for a continent-locked American to experience the period. Whether walking the cobblestone drives or climbing the small twisting staircases, viewing the iron-barred stained glass windows set into massive stone walls several feet thick or working along archway-guarded outside porticoes, The Cloisters provides a thrilling journey back in time to another age that fascinates us with its disjointed combination of beauty in craftsmanship and violence in lifestyle. I could go on and on, but as you might suspect, I took a few pictures (about 125!), so I’ll verbally step aside and let the images continue the story. The pictures in this post concentrate on the architectural elements. In a future post I’ll focus on the art and artifacts contained within this magnificent monastic facsimile. (For reference to the locations mentioned here’s a map of The Cloisters’ floor plan.)