I wrote this article for a college journalism class.
Stepping into Fort Tryon Park with The Cloisters Museum looming in the distance is like stepping out of twenty-first century America and into medieval Europe. The sheer vastness of the park engulfs the senses with things almost foreign to modern city life- an unobstructed view of the local beauty, the Hudson River; countless brightly colored, fragrant flowers of several species; boundless stretches of green grass. There are people here, too, but there’s no jostling for a prime subway seat or a hard earned spot in a long line. It’s difficult to believe that such a place exists in the middle of Manhattan.
The museum itself is an impressive structure. It consists of five cloisters of former abbeys and monasteries from France that were incorporated into the construction of the museum. In the medieval world, the cloister was the heart of a monastery and consisted of a covered walkway surrounding a large open courtyard, with access to all other monastic buildings. Cloisters also served as tranquil places for the devout to meditate and read. Three of the cloisters feature gardens “planted according to horticultural information found in medieval treatises and poetry, garden documents, and herbals,” according the museum’s website. The museum as a whole was built using architectural elements, objects, and materials from structures in Western Europe erected during the late medieval era (dating from the twelfth through the fifteenth century). Part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters was built to house the artistic treasures of the period.
It is this care and attention to detail that offers us an experience that feels so authentically medieval, a care also evident in the interior of the museum. The Late Gothic Hall, the room to the left of the main entrance, contains sculptures, altarpieces and tapestries from Germany, Italy, and Spain. Upon entering this room, one may notice that it seems dim. We’ve become accustomed to bright, fluorescent lighting, but here there are few sources of artificial light. Most of the light comes from the very tall, narrow stained glass windows, also found throughout the museum.
The windows in this room are made of fifteenth-century limestone culled from a former monastery in France. Each come to a high, sharply pointed arch at the top and feature nine silver-stained roundels, which are circular shaped panes of stained glass. The roundels are ca. 1500 to 1510 and are of South Netherlandish origin. The artist is unknown. The roundels were decorated using colorless glass, vitreous paint, and silver stain and are 8 and 7/8 inches in size overall.
Each roundel features highly detailed scenes and imagery using a bright, mustard yellow paint, as opposed to the multi-colored kind seen in most modern day churches. The scenes are mostly of Biblical stories. One titled “Souls Tormented in Hell” depicts in the foreground a frowning , nude woman with long, golden hair. With both hands, she yanks at her hair in anguish as creatures of various kinds, some with human-looking heads, crawl around her. The largest of them appears to have two torsos with heads at either end. Another roundel, titled “Joab Murdering Abner,” has equally disturbing imagery. In it, a man has a huge sword pointed to the back of another man who slouches in a corner with hands raised as if begging for mercy, giving the whole room a solemn, contemplative aura.
In this room is another breathtaking piece of artwork- “The Crucifixion Group.” It is a sculpture made of lindenwood depicting the crucifixion of Jesus. The piece is attributed to Hans Wydytz who was active between 1498 and 1516. The piece was likely carved in Germany. Warmly lit by a small bulb just above the clear case that houses it, amazingly intricate details can be discerned, such as the various textures depicted like hair and drapery. Despite being made of wood, the artist has the ability to realistically recreate these textures in an almost clay-like fashion.
Gail Robinson, a visitor, calls it “the most magnificent thing in this room. It is so intricately designed.”
The Gothic Chapel, just below the Late Gothic Hall, also has a solemn aura, but with a touch of the macabre- it is filled with royal and noble tombs. The tombs are from France and Spain and are lit by massive, multi-colored stained glass windows with severely pointed arches. Of the many tombs here is the double tomb of Don Àlvar Rodrigo de Cabrera, Count of Urgell and his wife, Cecília of Foix. Placed within an arched niche, one tomb rests on a short pedestal, while the second is on a shelf-like structure just above. It is a startling sight, made even more startling by the life-like carvings made into the lids of the tombs. The serene faces and hands, folded neatly, are masterfully carved in depicting how the dead looked when still alive.
“I had to take pictures of the hands,” Robinson says, marveling at the attention to details paid to the hands of the female tomb carving, right down to the slightly protruding veins.
Bianca Velez, a student at Hunter College, is also seen smiling while taking in the room. “I came here to study religious symbology,” she says.
Craning their necks to admire the stained glass are Alena and Steve Sivak. “We came to see the whole museum, but we especially came to see the Book of Hours and the Unicorn Tapestries,” Alena says, referring to two well-loved works in The Cloisters.
“The Unicorn Tapestries,” located in a separate, ornately furnished room, depict the hunt and capture of the mythical creature. Upon entering this room, one may first notice the staggering size of the tapestries- not only the amount but the size of each. There are seven individual tapestries that make up the collection, and each is huge. “The Unicorn Defends Itself” alone is 145 x 158 inches. Each are made using wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts and are bursting with lavish color. “The Unicorn Defends Itself” depicts “the injured unicorn being held at bay by three hunters ready to pierce him with their lances,” the museum map says. It is a dynamic scene that communicates excitement, danger, and movement that fully immerses the viewer, as does the entire museum.
And it all exists in the middle of Manhattan.