The Cloisters is one of those places people talk about going, but can never quite convince themselves to make the trek for. Then again, it is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval European branch, which is the kind of art people tend to rush past on their way to the Temple of Dendur or their favorite Van Gogh. But it shines on its own in the small abbey-like museum encrusted in beautiful Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights overlooking the Jersey Palisades.
The Cloisters appears to be a historical castle, but in fact it was built in the early 1930s as an extension of the Met with breathtaking attention to detail. Despite this relative newness, many interior fixtures and architectural elements are authentically medieval. The pristine stained glass from the Netherlands, doors from several abbeys in what is now France, and columns and frescoes from Spanish churches that visitors enjoy today were gifted to the museum by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the 1930s. Architecture is really the Cloisters’ strongest suit, and it informs and contextualizes the fine art the museum is able to showcase.
As with many of New York’s further-flung landmarks (we’re looking at you, Staten Island), one sometimes needs an excuse to make the journey. For us that excuse was The Forty-Part Motet, a sound installation by Janet Cardiff. Forty speakers are arranged in an oval, playing on a continuous loop an eleven-minute choral piece called Spem in alium numquam habui (“In No Other is My Hope”) by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505–1585). The motet is written in forty parts, meaning that each speaker plays a recording of an individual member of the Salisbury Choir. The music is sublime, and visitors can appreciate the distinct beauty of all forty parts by walking around the room to stand near different speakers. The Forty-Part Motet is the first contemporary work of art presented by the Cloisters, and it is a strange juxtaposition to see modern speakers and copper wiring filling the twelfth-century Fuentidueña Chapel, which was delivered from Spain to the Cloisters from 1958-1961. But it is a match made in heaven for Cardiff’s masterpiece; we can’t imagine the soaring motet having the same visibly moving effects on people in a plain white modern art gallery.
Though The Forty-Part Motet is now closed, the Cloisters still boasts an impressive permanent collection that makes the subway ride worthwhile. A room full of unicorn tapestries – no, really — can be found alongside a chapel pieced together from different locations in Spain that features an epic eagle lectern. The same chapel space brings together many tombstones and effigy sculptures that recall royal burials at Westminster Abbey or Saint-Denis, which are either thrillingly creepy (if you still miss Halloween) or fantastically intriguing (if you are a fellow history nerd). And it’s great art either way, especially with the mid-afternoon light streaming in through the vibrant stained glass windows.
Since it’s so much smaller than the Met, the Cloisters is also less crowded, and lets visitors photograph and lean in close to examine its crazier gems. There’s a stained glass panel with three ape carpenters, monumental candlesticks galore, and so many reliquaries (carrying cases for the relics of saints) in the shape of body parts that you could probably create an entire saint in a macabre Frankenstein-inspired scavenger hunt.
The best part of the museum, in our opinion, is its Medieval Gardens. Reminiscent of the Central Park Shakespeare Garden, this beautiful outdoor patio features trellises and raised garden beds filled with plants common in medieval Europe. The plants are arranged by their use: culinary, medicinal, and our favorite, magic. Potted fruit trees, herbs, and shrubbery also line the museum’s inner hallways. Even in mid-December, you can enjoy living history in the trellised fruit trees, fragrant herbs, and dinosaur kale (kale: not a new thing!). We can’t wait to return in the spring.
The Cloisters is pay-what-you-wish (read: free), just like its parent museum, and it is easily accessible using the A train to 190th Street or the M4 bus to the end of the line.
Check it out yourself, and let us know what you find!
[Image by Amanda McLoughlin]