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U.S.A.: The Cloisters

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The Cloisters | U.S.A. | Americas

[Visited: July 1991, October 2015]

When I get off the subway station and walk through Fort Tryon Park, I try to recall my previous visit to the Cloisters some 15 years before, but I find only vague memories in my mind. The views over the Hudson River are great: the trees have started their transition from green to yellow and red; Indian Summer is around the corner. Then, across an open area in the park, I see a medieval tower above the tree tops. I walk around the complex before I enter the Cloisters. Before roaming around the compound, I read more about its history. An American sculptor and collector, George Grey Barnard, had already started a collection of medieval European art which was later bought by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who also acquired properties in the Fort Washington area of Manhattan. Part of this was turned into the park I have just walked though; even estate on the other side of the Hudson river were bought, to ensure a good view from the museum and park. The Cloisters were assembled from five cloistered abbeys from France and Spain by Charles Collens in the 1930s, merged into the complex that we can now visit; an intriguing idea. Thousands of objects of medieval art, mostly from the 12th to the 15th century, are found in the halls, cloisters, chapels, and the Treasury. The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired the museum when the collection of Barnard went up for sale in 1924, and the Cloisters have been part of the Met ever since.

Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): The Bonnefont Cloister with columns on the south side of the Cloisters

After leaving my bag at the coatroom, I start my visit in counter-clockwise direction, going in the Fuentidueña chapel, the Saint-Guilhem Cloister, the Romanesque Hall, Cuxa Cloister, and many more rooms. There are two cloisters at this level, the Cuxa cloister being the largest; unfortunately, the square courtyard has just been closed off for the winter season. Luckily, the richly decorated capitals of the columns are still there to be admired. I make a full tour of the museum at this level, first to see the building itself, the halls and chapels, focusing on the architecture, the sculpted limestone doorways incorporated into much newer walls of the Cloisters, the stained glass windows with rich and colourful art. I then make another round, this time focusing on the objects on display. There are wooden and stone statues, there are paintings, with the 15th century triptych for the Merode Altarpiece as the highlight, there are tapestries, with the Unicorn tapestries as the highlight, there are tombs in the Gothic Chapel, there are frescoes on some of the walls of the chapels, and many more objects to keep you busy. The longer you are in here, the more incredible it seems that you are in Manhattan, just half an hour by train from the madness of the great American city.

Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): Stained glass window with the Angel Annunciate in the Early Gothic Hall

After a thorough exploration of the upper level, I walk down the stairs to see the medieval garden just outside the Glass Galley. Here, in the Bonnefont Cloister, effort has been made to grow plants that we know were used in medieval cooking. It is also the best spot to get a view of the complex building of the Cloisters with the square tower high above it. The Trie Cloister is nearby, and part of it a cafe. Inside is the Treasury, where I find a rich collection of precious objects from the Middle Ages. Jewellery, roundels, books, crosses, plaques, pendants, cups: a wide array of objects from many countries in Europe made from precious materials often imported from abroad. When I am done here, I take a rest in the warm rays of sun in the Bonnefont Cloister before walking the stairs up again. I cannot resist the temptation to again walk through all the halls: even after several times, you still note something new, your eye notices something you have not seen before, and I spend more time of some of the most valuable pieces here. I also take a closer look at the decorated doorways and the chapels. It is remarkable how those very different buildings taken from different regions in Europe have been re-assembled here and turned into a completely new and different context. When I finally leave, there is still some time to lie down in Fort Tryon Park and let all that I have seen sink into my head.

Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): Fuentidueña Chapel with fresco of Virgin and Child and crucifix
Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): Eastern entrance of the Cloisters
Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): The Langon Chapel is reached through the limestone doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean
Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): Unicorn in Captivity, a famous tapestry from the Netherlands on display in the Cloisters
Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): Jezus on a donkey: the Palmesel, a 15th century wooden statue from Germany
Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): Painted wooden sculpture Torso of Christ, 12th century piece taken from France
Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): The Gothic Chapel seen from above
Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): The Bonnefont Cloister garden containing medieval plants with the Cloisters complex in the background
Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): Columns and carved capitals of the Cuxa cloister
Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): Cloister of Saint Guilhem-le-Désert monastery in France
Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): Pontaut Chapter House, part of a 12th century French monastery
Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): Fragment of a 14th century ivory roundel with scenes of the attack on the Castle of Love in the Treasury
Picture of The Cloisters (U.S.A.): Busts of female saints from the 16th century on display in the Boppard Room, gallery 016

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