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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

THE CLOISTERS--MEDIEVAL ART


To most folks, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is located on Museum Mile, Fifth Ave., New York City. But up in Ft. Tryon Park at the northern end of Manhattan, its medieval art and architecture collection is housed in The Cloisters, a magnificent building, actually the incorporation of five medieval cloisters from southern France. Germain Bazin, former director of the Musée du Louvre described it as “the crowning achievement of American museology.”

The Cloisters has an interesting history. Much of the sculpture was acquired by G. Grey Barnard, a collector of medieval art who maintained his collection in a churchlike building on Ft. Washington Ave. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. acquired that collection, financed the acquisition of 66.5 acres for Ft. Tryon Park and the building of a new structure, and also purchased 700 undeveloped acres across the Hudson River in New Jersey to insure that the view from the Cloisters remain pristine. He contributed from his own collection including what I love most in any Cloisters’ visit, the Unicorn Tapestries—“The Hunt of the Unicorn.”

The Cloisters is not a free museum. The “suggested donation” is $20.00 but you may donate as you wish. We take the audio tour, always a plus at the Met. The tour costs $7.00 but is free for those hearing impaired.

Architecturally, the buildings focus on the Romanesque and Gothic periods. Wandering as we wish and listening to descriptions and explanations, we are also rewarded with discussions of exquisite stained glass windows and panels, detailed illuminated manuscripts, sculptures, frescoes—you name it, it’s probably there.

I’m always fascinated by the Unicorn Tapestries. These seven tapestries representing the story of the hunt combine so many elements of art, mythology, and Christianity that it takes a long time to digest the different theories and interpretations. Additionally, there are many flowers depicted in the exquisitely intricate weaving, some of which grow today in the Cloisters’ gardens. Questions remain—whose initials are embroidered in the fabric, for instance. Also amazing is that these magnificent, priceless works of medieval art from South Netherlands were discovered when they were used to wrap piles of potatoes!

The audio tour enables us to find and understand the symbolism in many artistic pieces. In one triptych depicting The Annunciation, the audio identifies the different characters portrayed including the patrons who commissioned the painting and Joseph in his carpenter’s workshop. We are directed to examine the details included by the artist—even to following the path of the arrow shot by the Holy Spirit toward Mary. Without the “tour guide’s” explanations, so much of this painting as well as of the other works of art would be lost to many visitors.

Visiting in the warm weather adds another dimension of beauty: three of the reconstructed cloisters’ gardens include flowers and herbs featured in medieval art and poetry—some of which are not even available in the U.S. Signs designate the use of individual plants, and it’s interesting to see which was used medicinally, for color dyes, as antidotes to poisons, etc. There doesn’t seem to be anyplace in the Cloisters where I cannot learn something.

In the garden, two wonderful plants grab my attention. The first is thistle. Rob feeds gold finches all summer, and they, as well as other finches eat thistle seeds. It is interesting to see a thistle plant, tall and beautifully bright purple. The flower is heavy with pollen and two insects, sticky with white spots are doing their spring chores, gathering and moving from flower to flower. The second marvel is the espaliered pear trees trained to grow and split as man dictates. The trees are stately and formal. Lovely.

From the gardens I look out over the Hudson to New Jersey’s Palisades and silently thank John D. Rockefeller for the view. I picnic with my friends on the lawn in front of the Cloisters—a lawn already peopled by sunbathers, bicycle riders, walkers, and others just out to enjoy Ft. Tryon park on a perfect early summer day.

I can’t recommend The Cloisters strongly enough. On any level you approach it, you are surely in for a wonderful and full afternoon.
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