As I mentioned in a previous post, many cultural institutions in New York City have reopened with enhanced cleaning and safety protocols and reduced capacity. The Met Cloisters reopened recently, and I took a trip there to share this enchanting location with you.
The Cloisters Museum is located in Fort Tryon Park, a 66.5 acre-piece of land in the northwestern corner of Manhattan which stretches from the northern reaches of Washington Heights to Inwood. The park is unique for its steep hills (the park is really built into the side of a steep hill), rocky outcroppings and mature oaks indigenous to the area. According to the National Park Service, high points within the park command a magnificent view westward across the Hudson River to the Palisades and northward up the Hudson for a distance of thirty miles on a clear day. “The parkland, unlike most of Manhattan, was spared major development and by the beginning of the twentieth century only three large estates occupied the land. One of these, the Billings mansion, burned in 1925 and with the creation of the new park, a series of terraces were constructed upon its foundations overlooking the river, one directly over the site of the British Fort Tryon with an attempt to suggest the fortification walls using native stone [as you’ll see in my pictures below]. Although untested, soil deposits at the base of the terrace construction may contain structural remnants and material pertaining to the Revolutionary War fortification. Another area within Fort Tryon Park where there is potential for archaeological remains is the Dongan Place shell heap site. Prehistoric remains have been collected from the surface of a steep bank below a stone retaining wall.
“Because the parkland was carved out before dense building occurred in Washington Heights in the 1920’s and 1930’s, its natural topography was preserved, the only changes being those to accommodate access roads, pedestrian pathways, sloping lawns, and the structures mentioned above. Although the park’s design called for the introduction of more than 1,600 plant species, the overall plan was made to conform with the irregular terrain. The design, moreover, had to take into account the extremely rocky and thin soil. In addition to eight miles of pathways, carefully graded stairways and ramps lead up the steep rise of 150 feet from Broadway and Riverside Drive to the overlooks, terraces, gardens and playlawns. On the east ledge of the highest point in the park now surmounted by an outlook and a flagpole, is a bronze plaque erected in 1909 by Mr. Billings in honor of the defense of Fort Tryon.”
At the very top of the park is The Cloisters. “The Cloisters and the Parks Department structures were all built between 1933 and 1938. Building materials for The Cloisters were chosen for their medieval appearance; for the exterior, Connecticut millstone granite, sand stone, and for the interior, Doria limestone picked to blend with the old stonework. The red roof and floor tiles were inspired by those at Saint-Michel-de-Cuxaj and Belgian paving blocks from New York City streets were used for the courtyard and drives. The five-story tower rises above the park creating a landmark visible from all directions. After the tower, the buttressed limestone walls of the Gothic chapel form the most prominent aspect to visitors approaching from the south. The Romanesque chapel from Langon in southern France dominates the west side of the building. In 1961, the twelfthn century Spanish chapel from Fuentiduena was added to the north side. Ramparts that surround both the west and north sides afford vistas of the Hudson River as well as views back over the courtyard and the north side of the building. Outside the rampart walls are dense plantings, including an apple orchard along the southern walls. Within the building are several specialized gardens including a medieval herb garden.
The various cloisters of the museum occupy a unique position architecturally. While enclosed within the building, all but one have open courtyards.
[Click the pictures to zoom in.]
Continuing from the National Park Service survey, “The Cuxa Cloister, which forms the core of The Cloisters structure, is the most notable of the cloisters. Its medieval architectural elements are from the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa near Prades in the French Pyrenees, one of the most important abbeys in the Roussilon region of southern France and northern Spain in Romanesque times. Dating from about mid-twelfth century, the capitals, carved with plants, grotesque figures and animals, are the most significant elements of the arcades enclosing the courtyard.
The Saint-Guilhem Cloister, at the northwest corner of the structure, has been planned around a series of capitals, shafts, and columns from the cloister of the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert near Montpellier. The elaborately carved double columns supporting intricate twin capitals date from the late twelfth century. The courtyard is covered over by a skylight which allows natural illumination.”
Now let’s go inside the museum. I will be quoting significantly from the Met Museum’s website throughout to provide you with the most accurate information to coincide with my own photos. First up, the Apse from San Martín at Fuentidueña (
“The church of San Martin at Fuentidueña probably functioned as the chapel for an adjacent castle. The plan, a long nave without projecting transepts or side aisles, is common for small Romanesque churches in Segovia. Also typical of the Romanesque period is the sober thick wall construction, interrupted only by small windows, and the rounded arches. An unusual feature of this apse is the large scale of the figures on piers. Saint Martin, patron of this church, is seen on the left, and the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Virgin is depicted on the right. On a capital above the Annunciation is a scene representing the Nativity. The large capitals supporting the triumphant arch show, on the left, the Adoration of the Magi, and on the right, Daniel in the Lions’ Den. The niches in the wall probably were used in the Mass to hold bread and wine.”
The Virgin and Child in Majesty and The Adoration of the Magi ca. 1100: “In this fresco, the Magi approach the Virgin and Child, not in a manger but enthroned in majesty and in the company of archangels. Mounted in the apse from Fuentidueña, this fresco originally came from a different site, the apse of the church of the Virgin near Tredòs, nestled in the Pyrenees, near the border between Spain and France. Despite its remote location, the church occupies a strategic position in the mountains, at the head of the Garonne River. In the twelfth century, it was controlled by the Knights Templar, then a wealthy military order dedicated to the protection of the Holy Land and to the Christian reconquest of Spain. The church is one of several in Catalonia where the same accomplished artist worked. The church of the Virgin was sacked in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. Subsequently, its frescoes were acquired by museums and private collectors, while other objects from the church disappeared entirely.”
Baptismal Font, ca 1155-70, South Netherlandish.: “This large font is central to the legend of a holy woman named Christina (1150–1224), whose story was recorded by Thomas of Cantimpré, a famous thirteenth-century Dominican author. Troubled by an evil spirit as she passed the village church in Wellen, Christina reputedly jumped into this font. She emerged from the water having achieved newfound exemplary behavior and thereafter was known as Christina the Astonishing. Stone baptismal fonts from the Meuse Valley were exported throughout northern Europe. The four projecting heads on this example, each slightly different from the other, probably represent the Four Rivers of Paradise.”
Lion Trampling a Dragon, ca. 1200, Spanish.: “The lion is a symbol of Christ, who was called in the New Testament the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. He tramples a dragon, the personification of evil. In the background is the Coronation of the Virgin flanked by the archangel Gabriel and St. Leonard, patron saint of prisoners, shown here freeing two captives from their chains. The relief originally flanked the church portal.”
Crucifix, ca. 1150-1200, Spanish : “Meant to be seen from both front and back, this large Crucifix represents Jesus hanging on the Cross, but nonetheless triumphant over death: his eyes are wide open, and he wears the gold crown of the King of Heaven. Though the original church from which this image comes is not known, figures of the living Christ on the Cross are found often in Romanesque Spain. A remarkable amount of the twelfth-century paint on the figure is preserved. There are conflicting accounts about the original provenance of the Crucifix; one source attributes it to the later convent of Santa Clara at Astudillo, near Palencia, but the source is not reliable.”
Lion, Dragon, and Falconer. copper alloy. (1) and (2) North German ca. 1200, and (3) German Franconia, ca 13th century: Three water vessels. “Derived from the Latin words for water (aqua) and hand (manus), an aquamanile (plural: aquamanilia) is an animal- or human-shaped water vessel used in hand washing, an essential component of religious and secular rituals in the Middle Ages. Aquamanilia were the first cast vessels of medieval Europe. Usually cast in copper alloy through the lostwax process (cire perdue), the hundreds of surviving examples date from the twelfth through fifteenth century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of the most important collections of aquamanilia in the world, with examples at The Cloisters and in the main building on Fifth Avenue, in both the medieval galleries and the Lehman Collection. Although compromised by the loss of the horse’s hooves and by significant wear to the surface, this aquamanile in the form of a youthful falconer remains a striking work. The left hand originally supported a falcon.”
The Resurrection. pine with paint and gold and silver leaf. Spanish, probably Valencia, ca 1500.