The Cloisters is a museum on the extreme northern hills of Manhattan Island. Its collection, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a seamless mélange of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, sculpture and decorative art pieces. In other words, Catholic religious art.When one thinks of a “Catholic museum,” the Vatican or the great cathedrals of Europe may come to mind. Most would be surprised to learn that there’s one in Manhattan.
In 1925, philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. acquired the majority of the museum’s collection from George Grey Barnard, a U.S. sculptor and art dealer/collector. Rockefeller greatly added to the collection and, in 1931, purchased land in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood.
On this plot, he assembled a new building that incorporated parts of several French, Catalan and Occitan cloisters and abbeys Sant Miquel de Cuixà, Bonnefont-en-Comminges, Froville, Trie-en-Bigòrra and Sant Guilhèm dau Desèrt, including two chapels, several atriums and a chapter house.
Architect Charles Collens built the present building between 1934 and 1939. It was constructed on a 66.5-acre plot of land that later became Fort Tryon Park. Rockefeller commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of one of the designers of Central Park, to create a park to complement The Cloisters museum, which he then donated to New York City in 1935.
Rockefeller also bought several hundred acres of the New Jersey Palisades across the Hudson River to preserve the tranquil, picturesque view from the museum.
Around 140 architectural elements of the five monasteries mentioned above were disassembled, stone by stone, categorized, labeled, packed and then shipped to New York City. Once there, they were reassembled into the magnificent structure visitors see today.
Nearly 5,000 art pieces were soon installed into the museum. Among these pieces are statues of the Virgin Mary and a high altar.
In 1988, The Cloisters’ Treasury Gallery was open to the public. It contains items associated with the Mass and other liturgical celebrations and personal devotions, including ciboria, patens, chalices, vestments, bishops’ crosiers, reliquaries and the most talked-about acquisition: a 13th-century flabellum, a fan, often made of metal, used during the Mass to keep flies away from the Blessed Sacrament and from the priest. Such fans were last used in the 14th century.
The pièce de résistance of the museum’s collection is the Unicorn Tapestry Collection, which depicts a unicorn hunt. The unicorn, in this regard, wasn’t meant to be an actual living creature. Rather, it’s a symbol of Christ. Legend informs us that a unicorn can only be captured by a patient virgin. Once the unicorn recognizes the young woman, it will surrender by resting its head upon her lap. It is the perfect symbol of the Incarnation, as only the Blessed Virgin could contain Christ’s greatness.
This awe-inspiring, highly detailed series of seven tapestries, entitled The Hunt of the Unicorn, are magnificent, both in size and execution. They’re made of spun wool and shot throughout with precious metallic threads and silk.
Some of The Cloisters’ other remarkable treasures include four illuminated books, the Bury St. Edmund’s Cross, the Annunciation Triptych or Mérode Altarpiece, a 12th-century walrus-ivory cross and a single, egg-sized, remarkably intricate rosary bead that opens up to reveal Christ’s crucifixion.
The two-story Gothic Langon Chapel is partially lit by stained-glass windows and contains an enormous hanging crucifix above the sanctuary. It was sourced from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg de Digne in Lagon and dates from the 12th century.
The Lady’s Garden, a reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a part of a 700-year-old cloister section from the Cistercian abbey of Bonnefont-en-Commings. It’s open year-round; however, it’s “productive” only during growing season. Each of the 80 species of plants and trees in the garden was known to the medieval community and was used either as food or medicine.
In many cases, the museum’s pieces were salvaged from a deconsecrated church left in ruins because of war. In fact, The Cloisters’ Pontault chapter house was used as a storage room for tobacco.
For a step back in Church time and away from the hustle and bustle of New York City, The Cloisters is well worth a visit.
Angelo Stagnaro writes from New York.
The Cloisters is located in Fort Tryon Park, along the Hudson River, in upper Manhattan. For detailed directions, call (212) 923-3700 or visit MetMuseum.org/visit/met-cloisters. If you make a day of your visit, you’ll want to include a side trip to the St. Frances Cabrini Shrine at the opposite end of the park, 701 Fort Washington Ave.
Once in New York City, take the A train to 190th Street or the 1 train to 191st Street.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
Closed on Mondays, The Cloisters is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30am to 5:15pm. It offers medieval-themed family workshops, a seasonal café, regular lectures and medieval concerts.