The Cloisters is not so much a museum as a house for worship.
It’s not only the powerful medieval artworks that inspire such reverence, but the setting as well.
The museum was designed at an architect’s desk but looks and feels as if built by a group of European monks sometime between the 12th and 15th centuries and later transported to New York. Even if you’ve never had any religious training, visitors might feel an urge to kneel or bow their heads. Some report a scent of incense or the faint echoes of monk robes rustling over the stone floors.
In several places, the 1938 museum, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a treasure of antiquity itself. Many sections of the museum’s walls, columns and rooms are the remains of medieval European monasteries that were painstakingly taken apart, shipped here and rebuilt on a rock outcropping overlooking the Hudson River in the picturesque and residential Fort Tryon Park area.
The Pontaut Chapter House room on the museum’s main floor is the real thing. “Every little stone, every little brick, was numbered and wrapped and brought here and then rebuilt,” the guide explained to a tour group huddled on benches in the stony-cold room.
“I’m glad they put the glass in these windows,” the guide said, gesturing toward a foot-wide break in the stone wall of the Pontaut Chapter House room. “Of course, there would have been no glass when this room was first built, and everything could come in: the wind, rain, cold, bugs….”
It’s just one of the many reminders that life was harder in the 12th and 13th centuries, even if you lived the relatively privileged life of a monk.
But the museum’s collection shows that hardships did not stifle artistic spirits.
Hand-engraved manuscripts and books illuminated in gold, chalices, candlesticks, censers, cruets, ewers, caskets for holy relics, crosses, missal covers and all other items associated with a religious rite are on view at The Cloisters.
Centuries-old carved statuary, stained glass and the renowned Unicorn Tapestries also are among the museum holdings, which span from the Romanesque period, dating from about A.D. 1000 to between 1150 and 1200, through the Gothic era, which lasted from about 1150 to about 1520.
The smallest items are displayed in the aptly named area called The Treasury. It is on the lower level in a subtly lit sanctuary of glass and wood exhibit cases.
This museum and its collection did not come cheap in either labor or dollars. The core of the collection was created by sculptor George Grey Barnard, who traveled through Europe gathering pieces of five Romanesque and Gothic cloisters. But it is John D. Rockefeller Jr. who is most revered in The Cloisters’ history.
“Rockefeller’s idea was to replicate the placement of a (real) monastery … most orders wanted to be isolated with peace and quiet,” a guide explained about The Cloisters’ placement just north of the George Washington Bridge, well away from the hubbub of midtown.
It was Rockefeller who bought Barnard’s collection, donated the land, bought up land across the Hudson River to protect the unspoiled view of The Palisades from The Cloisters, and even parted with his precious Unicorn Tapestries.
The seven Unicorn Tapestries are a jaunty note in a museum otherwise given to stained glass, statuary of Christ and/or the Virgin Mary, intricate stone design and symmetrical gardens.
For anyone accustomed to seeing the tapestries on note cards or in art books, reality can be a shock. First off, they are huge, so huge that if you stood six feet back, you’d have to tilt your head all the way back to see the top. (They differ in size, but 12 feet by 12 feet is an average size.) Second, the weaving is so spectacular that you may think you are looking at a painting.
“Tapestries such as these would have taken 90 men three or four years to complete (each one),” a guide explained. “They are made of wool and threaded with gold and silver.”
Believed to have been woven about 1500, the tapestries probably were a wedding gift for royalty. The panels tell a story, and that is often left to the teller.
“Imagine you are in the great hall of a castle. We’re dressed in our finest clothes and are having a banquet,” a guide told a group. “Troubadours stand before each tapestry and tell a story … sometimes it is about love, sometimes about God.”
Until they were donated to the museum, the tapestries had been hanging in Rockefeller’s Manhattan townhouse. Before that they’d been used for everything from wall hangings to a covering for vegetable bins (after being pillaged during the French Revolution).
The designs in the hangings are so intricate that more than 100 species of plants appear, 85 of which are identified. One of the museum gardens has been planted with as many of the plants as can be found and planted as close as possible to the “Unicorn in the Garden” tapestry.
Of particular interest to gardeners are the museum’s cloisters, especially the Bonnefont Cloister, which has a garden that includes many of the plants that would have been found in a common cloister garden.
Cloisters, from which the museum took its name, were interior courtyards usually attached to the southern flank of a monastery church. There, the plants and trees received the most sun, and the area was used by the monks for reflection, warmth, study and copying manuscripts.
The Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa Cloister, near the chapter room, is one of five cloisters at the museum and one of the most beautiful and peaceful.
The square cloister is bisected by two paths edged with flowers, and in the center is a bubbling stone fountain.
That would have been unusual at a monastery. “Plants were not just in a garden because they looked nice or smelled nice. They had to have a use,” a guide told a dozen people on a garden tour of The Cloisters.
More common would be the Bonnefont Cloister, which grows 250 species of plants and flowers from the Middle Ages, including the dye plants used to color the wool that would have been used in the Unicorn Tapestries.
During a garden tour of The Cloisters, visitors learn about the strawlike plants grown to stuff mattresses or the multiple uses of sweet-smelling plants.
“Their interiors weren’t quite as pleasant as they’d be today, and people just didn’t bathe as often,” a tour guide explained. “Some of these herbs, when stepped on, would give off a sweet smell.”
The utilitarian nature of the plants is emphasized by their names: Our Lady Bedstraw, Scotch Broom (for making brooms) and Feverfew (a daisy-like flowering plant thought to reduce fevers).
“Today, if you need something, you go to the store, but in those days, think about it, what were you going to do? You went out to your garden,” the guide said.
And plants often had several functions. For example, hops were used to make beer, as a mild sedative and as a hair dye, while the Sea Holly leaves were eaten as a vegetable, and its roots were thought to heal boils and act as an aphrodisiac.
As an inscription in the main hall suggests, The Cloisters does “give reality to the past.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO The Cloisters is open every day but Monday. Admission is $8 for adults, $4 for seniors and students. Children under 12 are free. Free tours are given daily at 3 p.m., and garden tours are offered at 1 p.m. in May, June, September and October. The museum also hosts many concerts. For information and directions, call (212) 923-3700. For information about concerts, call (212) 650-2290. Information also is available at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s web site at http://www.metmuseum.org.