The Art of Contemplation: The Cloisters

We all have places we go or things we do when we need a break, or we look up from our work and wonder how it became late-August. Art and museums have long been thought of as opportunities to escape from the everyday: I often think of the poem “Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’ ” (1965) by Robert Hayden, about his experience visiting Monet’s paintings at MoMA. Hayden wrote about immersing himself in the paintings and the temporary haven he found there, which I find myself looking for in art as well.

Living in New York, whenever I think of going somewhere calm and quiet, away from the daily rush and noise that is the city, I think of the Cloisters. Perched at the tip of Manhattan, it is both near and wholly distant from the rest of New York. Although it is one of the Met’s three institutions (with the main building on Fifth Avenue and the newly-opened Met Breuer), its character is very different from either of the other two. The Cloisters remind me of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in the way that you encounter them as a kind of step back in time. The museum’s architecture is a key part of the experience: since its construction, the Cloisters has housed part of the Met’s medieval art collection, but some of the architecture is itself medieval, brought over from Europe and rebuilt in the United States.

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The Cloisters tower from the Cuxa Cloister. Photo: Author.

The Cloisters therefore might best be described as a complex: parts of medieval European buildings joined together by modern materials to create a whole. The seemingly labyrinthine layout of the galleries encourage you to wander freely, and there is always some new treasure to discover. The three medieval cloisters that give the museum its name each feature gardens planted with similar flowers and herbs as populated gardens in the Middle Ages. They are also open to the sky, allowing in light and giving the effect that nature is a seamless part of the museum as well.

The Cloisters were built in the 1930s, and reflect the art historical practice at the time. Many works of sculpture and architectural fragments in the collection were collected by George Grey Barnard. Working in France during World War I, Barnard collected and sold medieval architectural fragments from structures that had fallen to ruin or that had passed into the hands of local citizens after destruction in previous years or centuries. (Art of the Middle Ages endured long periods of censure in later centuries: the 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch coined the term “Dark Ages” that characterized thinking about this period for a long time.) Barnard brought his collection back to the US, where he put it on display, and it was this collection that the Met purchased with funds from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1925. Many other works in the Cloisters collection came from Rockefeller, such as the Unicorn Tapestries, and the collection of J.P. Morgan. Rockefeller was also responsible for the purchase of land in upper Manhattan, which had previously been various estates: he gave it to the city of New York in what was to become Fort Tryon Park, and reserved several acres on which to build the Cloisters. The Cloisters buildings were designed by architect Charles Collens, who incorporated the medieval structures, transported and rebuilt in the United States, into his design. This is not a course that would be pursued now, but is it itself a reflection of an early 20th-century understanding of collection building, and it is important to understand that, much as we are able to enjoy the outcome. (For more on the history of the Cloisters, see here.) 

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Doorway from Moutiers-Saint-Jean, The Cloisters. Photo: Author.

Altogether the galleries of the Cloisters are tranquil and peaceful. The lighting is subdued. These are not spaces to rush through, or ones where you feel the need to compete with other visitors for a good vantage point of a work of art. And the Cloisters has truly stunning works of medieval art: the Unicorn Tapestries and the Merode Altarpiece are both famous examples, but also in their company are magnificent enamels and carved ivories, stained glass windows, and sculpture.

When I visit the Cloisters, I don’t go for any one work of art, rather I go for the experience of walking through the space and taking it all in. One of my favorite things to do is to take a seat near the Cuxa Cloister for a while. This cloister (c. 1130-40) makes up the center of the museum, and came from the monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa in the Pyrenees in France. (It is actually only part of the original; the rest remains at the monastery.) The cloister offers shade from the sun, but you can still feel the breeze. The columns are beautifully-carved pink marble, giving the space a warm feeling. It’s a good place to sit and relax. Afterward, I like to walk through the garden itself and admire the flowers.

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Flowers in the Cuxa Cloister. Photo: Author.

Another highlight of the Cloisters is the Treasury. Located on the lower level, it feels like stepping into a vault. And as soon as one does, one understands why. The gallery glitters with gold, silver, and enamel: many of the precious and more sensitive treasures of the Cloisters are displayed here. The Belle Heures of Jean of France, Duc de Berry (c. 1408/09), one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, is here. As someone interested in the history of the book, what always strikes me is how vivid the colors are after so many centuries, how the gold leaf still glows under the light. For me, this manuscript is one of those works of art that never ceases to amaze me no matter how many times I see it.

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A folio from the Belle Heures, Saint Catherine in Her Study. Photo: The Collection Online, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Cloisters are great place to go when you need a break from the city without actually leaving it, and to see beautiful works of art and architecture besides. If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit, I highly recommend making a pilgrimage there!

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One comment on “The Art of Contemplation: The Cloisters

  1. I go to the Cloisters to recharge my batteries as well – my favorite spot is the Chapter House Gallery, the area with the beautiful ribbed vaulted ceilings. In the simmer the actual cloisters are so beautiful as well though.

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