New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has an amazing collection of work. The main museum, on Fifth Avenue, is a place to get lost in art from around the world, and from many time periods. However, if you want to explore medieval art from Europe, you have to travel up to Fort Tryon Park, at the northern end of Manhattan, to the city’s own medieval monastery—The Cloisters.
In Fort Tryon Park, The Met Cloisters sits on a hilltop overlooking both the Hudson and Harlem Rivers. This castle is comprised of stones from several European buildings and chapels built over eight hundred years ago. The structures were originally purchased by George Gray Bernard, an American sculptor. While living in Europe prior to World War I, he began to deal in, and collect medieval art and religious items, with an eye toward creating a museum in New York City. His purchases included several chapels and Abbeys that had been abandoned. In 1925, John D. Rockefeller acquired Bernard’s collection for the Metropolitan Museum at a price of $700,000.
John D. Rockefeller had a plan to build a park in northern Manhattan, and in 1927 he hired Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the son of the designer of Central Park, to design Fort Tryon Park, on land that he had acquired along the Hudson River. In 1930, a sixty-seven acre site in the park was picked to be the home of Cloisters. Stones from the abandoned European buildings were brought over and used to create one cohesive building that would house this new medieval collection of the Met. The museum was built on a steep hillside, with galleries on two different levels. It includes open courtyards and an herb garden that looks out onto the Palisades of New Jersey.
The Cloisters’ galleries are filled with wonderful pieces of art. Most of them are from Spain and France. You will find altars and altarbacks built for churches, along with other religious accoutrements.
There are also many ceramic and architectural features from the lives and homes of European nobility.
To me, the highlight of a visit to the Cloisters are the Unicorn Tapestries. Titled “The Hunt of the Unicorn”, these seven pieces were made between 1495 and 1505 in the Netherlands. They depict the hunt, capture and death of a unicorn. While there are several interpretations of their meaning, these are beautiful works, and still in excellent condition.
While Medieval art is not everyone’s favorite, a trip to the Cloisters feels like a trip back in time, or at least to one of the many museum museum in Europe that are housed in their ancient structures. The walk through Fort Tryon Park is beautiful and that along with walking through the building make this a great afternoon out.
Nuts and Bolts:
The Met–Cloisters is open Thursday-Tuesday from 10:00 AM -4:30 PM.
Entrance fees for the Met are Adults $25 / Seniors $17 / Students $12. New York State residents have the option to pay what they want and do not need advance tickets.
The Cloisters is in Fort Tryon Park. There is limited free parking at the museum, and elsewhere in the park. You can also take the A train to the 191st street station, which has an exit near the park’s Ft. Washington Avenue entrance. The M4 bus stops directly in front of the museum.