The Cloisters in New York City Preserves and Protects A Special Collection of Medieval Art

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December 18, 2014 by bbutler1969

Standing on a cobblestone path outside a building overlooking a river, you’d think you were about to enter a medieval monastery instead of an art museum at the northernmost tip of Manhattan. Inside The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a collection of magnificent medieval artwork displayed with sensitivity and style.

SculptorThe Cloisters George Grey Barnard collected Romanesque and Gothic works of art, as well as portions of cloisters salvaged from four medieval French monasteries, in the early years of the 20th century.  In 1925, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. not only helped the Metropolitan purchase the collection, but also enhanced it by donating dozens of medieval works of art from his private collection.  In 1935, Rockefeller decided to have a building erected for displaying it.

The Cloisters opened on May 10, 1938. Seventy-five years later, an aura of peace, serenity and quiet pervades The Cloisters, creating the lovely setting for medieval art that Rockefeller intended.

European monastery buildings surrounded a central cloister, an open courtyard bordered by covered, arcaded walkways reminiscent of the peristyles in Roman houses. When monks weren’t meeting in the monastery’s Chapter House, they came to the cloister to meditate and study.  At The Cloisters, you can explore a 12th-century Romanesque Chapter House from the French Aquitaine, as well as four cloisters.

In each of the cloisters, arcades of capitals decorated with acanthus leaves, palms, vines, bunches of grapes, rosettes, animals and people border gardens of trees, flowering plants and herbs known during the Middle Ages. Walking through the galleries surrounding each of the cloisters leads to discoveries of piece after beautiful piece of incredible artwork.The Cloisters

Yellow stained-glass roundels popular in 15th-century Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands are displayed in windows with leaded glass panes that look out over the river. The natural light from the windows imparts liveliness to the stained glass that is difficult for other museums to convey.The Cloisters

Even ephemera on display at The Cloisters is noteworthy. Figures dressed in elaborate Burgundian court costumes adorn the only complete set of painted playing cards known to survive from the Middle Ages.

The Cloisters

Tapestries are some of the most prized objects in the collection. The Unicorn Tapestries, six magnificent 15th-century tapestries representing the Hunt of the Unicorn, were a gift of the Rockefellers. Their millefleurs (“thousand flowers”) background represents 101 species of plants typical of the time; 85 have been identified.

Unicorn Tapestry, The Cloisters

In a masterwork of conservation, a huge 16th-century Spanish tapestry that had been cut into four pieces was recently rewoven together. This video describes the painstaking, restoration of the tapestry that took place between 1973 and 2009, including designing and dying yarns specifically for the project. 

Other rooms are furnished with domestic objects of the time. In the Campin Room, high-backed oak and walnut benches, a wall bracket with a reflector to increase the illumination of candlelight, a Flemish bronze chandelier, majolica, lusterware and the Annunciation Triptych, an important Northern European object for private devotion, are displayed beneath a late 15th-century painted pine ceiling from the Tyrol.

The Cloisters

The museum’s core missions are to preserve and protect the monuments of medieval art in its care; to elucidate those works through creative educational programming; to provide vigilant stewardship of The Cloisters’ landmark physical facilities; and to continue collecting masterworks of medieval art at the highest level of quality. To ensure a respectful setting for these sacred works of art and provide a contemplative atmosphere in which to view them, The Cloisters relies on digital audioguides instead of captions and wall panels to provide information about the collection. Subdued background colors make for an unobtrusive setting that does not detract from the artwork and architectural fragments on display.

To read more about The Cloisters, see The Cloisters: Medieval Art and Architecture, by Peter Barnet and Nancy Wu; A Walk Through The Cloisters, by Bonnie Young; Creating the Cloisters,” by Timothy B. Husband, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, volume 70, number 4 (Spring 2013); George Grey Barnard: The Cloisters and The Abbaye,” by J.L. Schrader, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, volume 37, number 1 (Summer, 1979) and Medieval Monuments at The Cloisters and The Cloisters: The Building and the Collection of Medieval Art in Fort Tryon Park, both by James J. Rorimer.  Also, watch The Cloisters Museum and Gardens – Behind the Scenes with the Director, a video tour of The Cloisters with Tom Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Peter Barnet, curator in charge of medieval art and The Cloisters.  The page also provides links to other videos about the collections, medieval art and The Cloisters; footage of The Cloisters under construction, and “The Hidden Talisman,” a 1928 film telling the story of the history of The Cloisters that was shot at the original Cloisters museum.


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