The Cloisters

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 115 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned I’m going with the crowd on this one, but I’m picking the Unicorn Tapestries.  I just love them — the allegory, the sheer beauty, the amount of work that went into making them (and any tapestry really).  I love the mystery to them — we don’t know exactly who the “A” & “E” were for whom they were made.  The unicorn has a rough time of it, but they fill me with joy, and I see new things in them every time I visit.  Also don’t overlook the narwhal horn tucked in the corner of the room where they reside.

This is a milestone post, my fiftieth museum review.  So I decided to treat myself to my very favorite of all New York museums, The Cloisters.  But now that I’ve started, I realize, what can I say about The Cloisters?  I feel overmatched and inadequate.  The Cloisters isn’t just my favorite museum, it’s quite possibly my favorite place. It’s so unlikely, it’s like magic or a miracle happened in this park at the far northern tip of Manhattan.  But as with so many of the miracles in New York City, it was money not magic that made The Cloisters happen.

The Cloisters, A Manhattan MiracleThe home to a large portion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection, The Cloisters occupies a building comprised of buildings and chunks of buildings and assorted architectural bits gathered from France and Spain and shipped to northern Manhattan, where they were re-assembled stone by stone, along with a modern fabric of connecting rooms and halls and assorted infrastructure, creating an integrated whole.  It includes chapels, chapterhouses, gardens and, yes, cloisters, which were covered courts surrounding monastery gardens and connecting monastic buildings.

The Cloisters is John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s baby.  He funded the Met’s purchase of the initial collection, he bought the land it stands on, and financed the purchases of the ancient architectural components that comprise it.  He even bought the land on the opposite side of the Hudson in New Jersey, helping ensure that the views westward from the Cloisters would remain largely unspoiled by modernity.  The Cloisters opened in 1938.

The fairly unspoiled view from The Cloisters

I’m not even sure why I love The Cloisters so much.  I don’t have some kind of Middle Ages fetish.  Okay, maybe I have a slight one–I have dressed up to attend Renaissance Faires.  But I would not want to live in that time for love or money. 

Enthroned Virgin and Child, Birch with paint and glass, from Burgundy, ca 1130-1140

I’m not religious, and the art there leans very heavily toward altarpieces, virgins, saints, and crucifixes.  And, it should be noted, big chunks of the medieval era are missing:  if you’re looking for suits of armor, halberds, or swords, you have to go to the Met proper.  But the things they do have are very beautiful and rare, and I have respect for anything that somehow survives for centuries.  

I do unabashedly love the gardens of The Cloisters.  Crazy with flowers, burbling with fountains, there is no better place to spend a springtime Sunday afternoon with a friend, a book, a crossword puzzle.

The Cloisters, ManhattanWhat The Cloisters does have, in spades, is harmony.  Something about the sum of the myriad parts of The Cloisters helps even secular, modern me achieve a temporary inner serenity, a sense that, at least here and for this moment, all is right with the world.

Here’s a selective and incomplete list of the things you can do at The Cloisters:

  • Pretend you’re a Lannister (or a Stark, if you swing that way).
  • Watch bumblebees among the spring flowers
  • Imagine the peace of a simpler time
  • Learn what it means to espalier a tree, and whether it hurts
  • Examine an Apocalypse
  • Practice your Latin
  • Thank your lucky stars you live in our modern, less superstitious and plague-ridden world.
The Treasury

I overheard a mom with two young children tell a guard that they’d “come to see the castle.”  The Cloisters can be that for you too.

Unicorns ahead

Rather than blather further about The Cloisters on my own, I’m going to defer to two authors, one very good, one pretty bad, both of whom coincidentally wrote about the place in the 1980s.

Piers Anthony, whom I’d characterize as a mediocre sci-fi/fantasy guy, wrote a short story called “Cloister” for an anthology with a future New York theme. In it he imagined that The Cloisters was the hub of the universe. An abbot there tinkered with the settings of reality (which so happened to be located there) and a bunch of pun-ish things happen (Anthony loves his puns) inadvertently creating New York City as we know it today.  I don’t recommend the story, but the notion of The Cloisters as the still, eternal center of New York’s frenetic, forward-racing universe is spot-on.

The Cloisters, ManhattanJorge Luis Borges wrote a poem called “The Cloisters” in 1981.

The Cloisters

From a place in the kingdom of France
They brought the stained glass and the stones
to build on the island of Manhattan
these hollow Cloisters.
They are not apocryphal.
They are faithful monuments to a nostalgia.
An American voice tells us
to pay for what we want,
because this whole building is an invention
and the money as it leaves our hand
will become shekels or vanish like smoke.
This abbey strikes more terror
than the pyramid of Giza
or the labyrinth at Knossos,
because it too is a dream.
We hear the fountain’s murmur,
but that fountain’s in the Patio of the Orange Trees
or the epic of Der Asra.
We hear clear Latin voices
but those voices echoed in Aquitaine
when it was a stone’s throw from Islam.
We see in the tapestries
the resurrection and the death
of the white condemned unicorn,
because time in this place
does not obey an order.
The laurel trees I touch will flower
when Leif Ericsson sights the sands of America.
I feel a touch of vertigo.
I am not used to eternity.


The Cloisters, Manhattan

For Reference:

Address 99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $25 Suggested (includes admission to all 3 Metropolitan Museum branches)
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