A winding stone staircase brings you up to the museum where a Gothic Chapel with 14th century stained glass windows waits. A pillared courtyard arcade, one of four that gives the museum its name, the gardens fill the air with sweet scents, narcissus and oleander. Imagine the snow falling in winter on this courtyard, overlooking the Hudson River.
The Cloisters Museum was assembled based on abandoned European monasteries, the core cloisters reconstructed from salvaged parts. The interior is made up from architectural bits and pieces – a door, an arch – from northern Europe, dating from the 9th to the 16th centuries. Five medieval French cloisters – Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Bonnefont-en-Comminges, Trie-en-Bigorre, and Froville- were incorporated into the modern museum building. The result is not a copy of any particular medieval structure, but an ensemble of spaces, rooms and gardens that provide a harmonious setting to experience medieval artistic expression and life.
The Cloisters offers an imaginary Middle Ages, but with real medieval art on display. The demand for this fantasy has always been strong. The robber barons of the Gilded Age, with their castle keeps and Anglo-Saxon piety, looked back on feudalism with a certain fondness. The museum didn’t start with romantic chivalry; being the product of hard cash and shrewd decisions. The hilltop where it stands was the home of CKG Billings, ‘capitalist at large’ who maintained a staff of 23 and a fleet of 13 cars. He sold the place to John D. Rockefeller in 1916, who offered to donate the land to the city of New York as a park. No thanks, they said, too much upkeep. The house was rented out burning down 10 years later. An American sculptor named George Gray Barnard (1863-1938), used a stable on the property as a studio. He spent time in France, supporting himself as a dealer in medieval art. He started selling sculptural fragments found in the countryside or bought from local dealers. He expanded into architectural elements, including complete portals and cloisters. The French government finally passed a law in 1913 to stop the export of their cultural heritage. Two days before the law took effect Barnard sent a shipload of materials and artifacts to New York. He built his own public museum in Upper Manhattan, calling it the Cloisters. Rockefeller visited and soon became a major client eventually buying the entire collection for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He gave land and money to the city, stipulating that four acres on the northern edge of Fort Tryon Park be reserved for a new museum. Then he purchased 700 acres of land across the Hudson in New Jersey to ensure the museum would continue its unobstructed view. Building began in 1935; three years later the Cloisters opened.
The art is dedicated to the Romanesque and Gothic periods, but the museum is renowned for its architectural sculpture. A collection of more than 5,000 pieces includes illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, enamels, ivories and paintings. Among the masterpieces the museum boasts are the well known Unicorn Tapestries, a series of five, produced in Flanders around 1500, representing the hunt of the Unicorn.
Another treasure found inside is the Merode Triptych, representing the Annunciation, by the 15th century master Robert Campin and his workshop. The Google Art Project has this painting available with high resolution magnification. This particular Triptych is small in comparison with others, but is one of the earliest examples of individual devotion and prayer in a domestic setting, revolutionary thought for the time of its execution. The Google Art Project also has made available the virtual tour of the museum.
A new exhibition features the Lewis Chessmen, continuing the themes of medieval life and influences. A video from the NY Times “From Elephants to Bishops” offers the history of these pieces, found in a sand bar in Scotland on the Isle of Lewis in 1831. Watch for their influence on the Harry Potter movies. A tutorial on Wizard’s Chess featuring these animated pieces can be found at Harry Potter Wiki.
The Cloisters is certainly one of the hidden museum gems found on the web for a virtual tour. Imagine a snow fallen evening walking through the gardens, the stone footpaths crunching underfoot, then turning inside to find the treasures hidden within from another time. Many a story can be derived visiting this microcosm of medieval art.
Do you have any hidden museum treasures? Share them in the comments below and I will take the virtual tour on a future Museum Monday. On Friday I will share another Cabinet of Curiosities, followed by a special piece on Artemisia Gentileschi who is enjoying renewed popularity with a show at the Palazzo Reale.