Exploring Medieval Art in New York

By Montet, Margaret | The World and I, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Exploring Medieval Art in New York


Montet, Margaret, The World and I


To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which pour dull facilities can comprehend only in the most primitive forms--this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of the devoutly religious men. --Albert Einstein, What I Believe The Metropolitan Museum's Cloisters looks out across the grey Hudson River to the misty New Jersey Palisades, calling to mind an imagined medieval monastery somewhere in fourteenth-century Europe. A chilly, rainy day in April seemed the perfect kind of day for a pilgrimage to the Cloisters Museum where the religious artifacts appeal to the modern visitor in the primitive way Einstein illuminates above. This magnificent collection of medieval art and architecture sits atop a bluff in Upper Manhattan in a granite building lined with Italian limestone. These materials give the place an austere chill, but at the same time, the perfectly appropriate backdrop for these treasures of the Middle Ages.

The word cloister is derived from the Latin claustrum, which originally meant a lock, and later referred to a locked door or gate. This is the word used to describe the part of a medieval monastery that was off-limits to all but the monks who read, studied and worked in seclusion inside. The cloistered portion of a monastery usually contained four buildings (church, refectory, dormitory and chapter house), which were linked by open hallways or passageways that were set up in a square or rectangle. In the center of the square was a yard or garden. The Cloisters Museum contains examples of these passageways, gardens, a church and a chapter house from some medieval monasteries.

The idea of a medieval museum was the brainchild of George Grey Barnard, a sculptor and collector of medieval artifacts. The parts of four cloisters that were eventually incorporated into this museum (Saint-Guilhelm, Cuxa, Bonnefort and Trie) were part of his collection. Another of Barnard's projects caused him enough financial distress that he was forced to sell his collection and museum. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. bought it for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1925. He also purchased the land across the Hudson River in New Jersey called the Palisades so that there would be no development to spoil the view from the Cloisters. This land between the George Washington Bridge and the Tappan Zee Bridge was presented to the state of New Jersey. After having Fort Tryon Park project landscaped by the Olmstead Brothers (sons of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmstead), Rockefeller commissioned architect Charles Collens to build a medieval museum at Fort Tryon Park. Collens combined Barnard's cloister parts, other architectural elements, and new construction to create this museum. He explored medieval religious sites in France for ideas to use in the new construction authentically. The Cloisters opened in 1938. Included in the museum were three authentic medieval cloister gardens which were intended to be educational and aesthetically pleasing. Horticulturists are employed by the museum to research medieval plants and maintain the gardens.

Architectural additions

The apse from the church of San Martin at Fuentiduena was acquired (through permanent loan) from the Spanish government in the 1950s. This is a rounded end of a church made of sandstone and limestone where the altar would have been. It was incorporated into the then Special Exhibitions room. Two notable examples of Spanish art were added to the apse to create a more authentic display. A twelfth-century crucifix of carved and painted wood from Palencia hangs in front. The Virgin and Child in Majesty and The Adoration of the Magi from around 1100 is a fresco that was transferred to canvas. It is attributed to the Master of Pedret and was originally painted on the walls of the church of Saint Joan at Tredos in Catalonia. …

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