The Cloisters: A Medieval World in New York

 

The Cloisters, atop a hill in Manhattan's Fort Tryon Park is the Metropolitan Museum's display case for its extensive collections of medieval art; it's also the only one of the Met's three branches that mostly manages to not seem like a museum, but rather an ancient building with exhibits.

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Doorway from an early Gothic abbey near Dijon serves as entry to a Roman-esque chapel from Langon. The metal door mounts are 11th century work

How that came to be is in last week's blog. Still, The Cloisters is so full of hangings, carvings, paintings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture and yes, architectural parts that it could not be anything but a museum, and one of the two or three top museums of medieval art anywhere.

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Occasional diagrams in rooms like the Romanesque chapel above show which parts are original and which restored.

It's far from haphazard, though; the original designers and curators assembled the ancient stones and art into a coherent path that begins in the Romanesque era and moves through a series of rooms and galleries that slowly pass the time into the early and then the late Gothic periods.

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Beastly art was imbued with symbolism of what is not always clear. Spanish, about 1200, these frescoes were transferred to canvas.


Of course, that's pretty much the way the art developed. No one ever said, "I'm tired of round arches and low vaults; let's go pointed and sky-high." For that reason, the transition is seamless and gradual; the floor plan tells you the room's title but if you don't use it, the realization of changes is gradual and engrossing. I'm a map reader, but my advice here is to ditch it.

P1050921It's easy to think of medieval art as monochromatic stone, but that's clearly not the case with this ornamental box celebrating the exploits of a knight who later became a monk. Nor is it true of the tapestries that are among the museum's greatest treasures.

The first picture is a huge assembly that is believed to be focused on either Hector of Troy or Alexander the Great. the second is one of the panels of the Met's Unicorn Tapestries.

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Color also comes from the changing light as you pass through the different galleries and into the four open cloisters incorporated into the building.

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Among the museum's most significant focus rooms is the Fuentidueña Apse, from a Romanesque church near Segovia. Its two most spectacular art pieces are the hanging crucifix, and behind it the frescoes of virgin and child, and the Adoration of the Magi. Both are early 12th century, but from different churches.

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That's part of the Illusion of the Cloisters: to create rooms that seem as if they contain what might have been there centuries ago, Since most of the art and architecture was collected in bits and pieces from long-abandoned or destroyed buildings, it couldn't be otherwise, but it's been done well. The four pieces below are in the Fuentidueña Apse but come from different parts of France and Spain.

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How all those bits and pieces ended up in one place is a story in itself, largely involving an American sculptor/scavenger, George Barnard, whose extensive collection of remnants was sold to John D. Rockefeller, who paid for the construction of The Cloisters and convinced fellow collectors, including J. P. Morgan to chip in their hoards.

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Unlike the rows of identical columns we're used to seeing on banks and courthouses modeled on Greek and Roman temples, the columns of the cloisters are generally more varied and individualized. Add to that the variety of pieces the museum has assembled, and it's quite a show.

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It's almost time to move onto more Gothic areas of the collection, but here are a few more rounded arches and a lovely pair of doors before we go on.

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One of my favorite spots in any abbey or monastery, the Chapter House, where the resident monks met daily to discuss the abbey's business and the rules they lived under. This one is from Pontaut in western France; when Barnard bought it, it was being used as a cow shed.

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A fancier hall, with more light, was built to house both the Unicorn Tapestries and a number of prominent items, including a huge limestone fireplace from 15th-century Normandy. The fireplace fittings are French and Spanish from the same era, but the  two walnut folding chairs are from Italy.

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Moving along to the Late Gothic galleries, carving and detail becomes more elaborate, and so does the use of color, especially gold. The object in the last picture is a tall candleholder that sat next to a massive altar.

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I wasn't expecting this: Gothic humor. In most cathedrals, choir stalls, to be occupied by clergy and local gentry as well as choristers line the area before the altar; the seats fold to allow standing or kneeling. What I hadn't known about is a tradition of comic carvings that are only revealed when the seat is up. This one is just funny; apparently many of them are quite raunchy.

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These 35 panels with scenes from the life of Jesus were made as a background behind a set of choir stalls. They were produced together in the same workshop but reflect individual styles of at least four carvers working there.

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The ornate canopy below once sheltered a statue from the rain at a Portuguese monastery; it only recently came to the Cloisters. Note how detailed the little tile roofs are; inside the central tower, there are tiny vaulted ceilings.

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Common Biblical scenes, elaborately carved were common as church decorations in the 15th century; these are both from Germany, where wood carvings were especially common, more so than in France or Italy.

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At this end of the collection, more domestic furniture and household goods are shown, reflecting the increased availability of goods with rising trade and wealth. We'll see more of that work in next week's blog, but the plates and the cabinet are both good examples.

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Even the Merode Altarpiece, above reflects that trend; although its theme is classically religious, it was painted for private worship in the home of wealthy Netherlanders, who are shown in the left-hand panel, watching the Archangel Gabriel's visit to the Virgin Mary. Stylistically, the painting already shows signs of the new styles that emerged in the Netherlands over the next decades.

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Another unusual piece of woodcarving from Germany, the Palmesel, or Palm Donkey, was used to lead street processions on Palm Sunday, marking Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on, wait for it, a donkey. 

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More altarpieces; the top one features the life of St Andrew and comes from 15th century Catalonia. Below it, Jesus, John the Baptist and St Margaret in Carrara marble from Italy and a painted retablo from Aragon in Spain with scenes from the Passion. Below, Archangel Michael, dresses as a warrior.

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No visit to cathedral or castle is complete without a tomb or two or three. Most of these, on display in the Cloisters' Gothic chapel, are from one Catalan family; many of them bear distinct similarities, because a Catalan noblemen, the Count of Urgell, decided to glorify his family by moving them all to grander tombs than they'd originally had.

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But leaving sleeping dogs lie (most of the male tombs have carved dogs resting under their late masters' feet, a stop for two last treasures. First, a beaten-metal piece showing people at work in their ordinary occupations.

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And finally, this amazing wonder. It's a Book of Hours, designed for its owner, often a monk, to use at daily prayers throughout the day. Not all were so elaborately illuminated, nor were they so small. The master Simon Bening created this one in mind-boggling detail—considering that the pages are about 2-9/16" by 2-1/16"!

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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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