Friday, April 15, 2011

The Cloisters: Fort Tryon Park by Broadway and 190th Street

The Cloisters is a part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art but is located way way up on the upper west side (can you call this area the upper west side or is this the Bronx?).  It was one of the first contextual museums in the United States.  It is dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval Europe (500 to 1500 AD), covering both the earlier Romanesque period and the Gothic era.  It was never a monastery or a convent; it was originally built over 3 years and opened to the public in 1938 as a museum funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

George Grey Barnard started collecting medieval art and architectural remnants (abandoned in the aftermath of the French Revolution) while he was living in France (trying to make a living when his commission for sculptures for the U.S. Capitol in 1902 was whittled back -- fall out of government corruption). After his return to the U.S. and after some financial hardships, he was forced to sell his collection at auction.  Rockefeller purchased the collection and later donated it to the Met.

The collection at the Cloisters is predominately religious in nature (not art that ranks high on my list of interests), and there are the beautiful, but predictable stained glass windows, religious paintings, religious sculptures, and religious objects (see detailed carving with over 90 figures in ivory cross at left), vessels and vestments.  Their collection also includes tapestries (you have to see the unicorn series in person to really appreciate their detail, beauty and symbolism) and sepulchers (see tomb effigy of boy (probably the Count of Urgell of Spain) at below right).

There was one tomb that we talked about in detail during the hour long guided tour of a knight -- definitely go on the tour (Tues-Sun at 3 pm, but check for latest info on tours and lectures--by the way, notwithstanding what the website says, there are no shuttles between The Cloisters and The Metropolitan Museum of Art) if you want an interesting, interactive inside look.

However, what really makes this museum worth a good long visit (and their $20 for adults, $15 for seniors recommended donation--I didn't spring for the $7 audio tour and did not feel anything lacking given the free guided tour I took) are the cloisters, gardens and architectural mix of medieval and modern (see mid 12th century apse from the church of San Martin at Fuentiduena (Segovia) at left).  They have taken great care to combine real antiquities from all over Europe within a modern building in an integrated and almost seamless way. It's remarkable how they tied in the glass from one castle to the chapel of another married with the ceiling of another with doors (please take the time to notice the doors; you could walk right by them if you don't pay attention and their collection of medieval doors is worthy of a tour on their own) from yet another and make it look like it all belongs together.

For me, the highlight of the museum were the four cloisters.  The architecture that enabled monks to get from one part of a religious compound to another with protection from the weather form restful, garden-filled areas surrounded by arches of unique columns and capitals.  They are all beautiful, and when the garden tours start in May, I am sure the cloisters will be even more so.  I've included my version of artistic photos of each of the four cloisters below.  Enjoy!

St. Guilhelm Cloister which is fully enclosed by an atrium roof
Trie Cloister by which you can enjoy light dining from Cafe Trie
Bonnefort Cloister from the edge of which you can see scenic views of the Hudson River
Cuxa Cloister, which they have determined was double in size originally

Pontant Chapter House where monks would gather to conduct business at NW corner of Cuxa Cloister

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