Monday, July 12, 2010

Weekend in New York Part 1: The Cloisters


On Saturday, July 10, Renee and I visited the Cloisters Museum and Garden in Manhattan.

The Cloisters Museum and Garden is owned by the Metropolitan Museum, and is dedicated to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages.  It was started by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who imported ruined abbeys from Spain brick by brick and had them reconstructed in the uppermost reaches of Manhattan.  He wanted the visitor to feel as if he or she was indeed in a medieval abbey, so he bought all the land on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River and kept it from being developed and breaking the spell of the Cloisters.  Today, that land is Palisades Park.

The Cloisters now houses over 5000 artifacts, from approximately 800 A.D. to the sixteenth century.  So it was perfect or a guy like me who is in the middle of a prolonged Medieval kick.  

The first interesting thing about getting to The Cloisters is making the long journey out there.  You have to get on the train and take it to 190th Street in Manhattan.  I didn't even know there was a 190th Street in Manhattan.  That's 29 blocks north of Yankee Stadium (in the Bronx, of course), which I always thought was the uppermost limits of civilization.  (As you might have guessed, my sense of New York geography maybe isn't as good as it could be.)

So, we made it all the way up there.  We were making jokes about being the first human beings to venture that far north, and that when the subway doors opened there would be polar bears waiting for us.  We were looking for the aurora borealis.



207th Street?  Is that a misprint?


The Cloisters is in the middle of For Tryon Park, which is at the base of an enormous rock outcropping.  To get up there, we had to hike half a mile through the park.  By the time we got to the top we had the sense that we had left the cares of the worldly behind and had entered a more contemplative spot, much like a Medieval monk might have.



Renee in Tryon Park

This museum is best known for its remarkable and enigmatic unicorn tapestries, which by themselves are worth the trouble of climbing the hill.  We saw so many beautiful things at The Cloisters that I can't talk about all of them.  Instead, I will post some pictures of some of my favorites.




This book of hours comes from about the 1270s A.D.  These books were usually written in Latin and contained psalms and prayers.  I can read exactly two words in this example, "in inferno," or "in hell."




This was a large painting of Augustine being consecrated bishop of Hippo.  Augustine was one of the most important Christian philosophers, and he wrote in the fifth century A.D., at the dawn of the Middle Ages.  His thumbprint is all over The Canterbury Tales.




We saw many examples of the Virgin and child represented.  This one is French and from the 13th century.




This one is also French, but much larger.  This was Renee's favorite.




Another example.


This is the earliest of the four.  




This stained glass portrait of St. Laurence's martyrdom is interesting because it was made in the late twelfth century and was actually located at Canterbury Cathedral.  Therefore, it may have been there at the time Chaucer wrote his tales, and his fictional pilgrims theoretically could have seen it when they arrived at the end of their journey.  It depicts St. Laurence being grilled alive.  (St. Laurence is definitely a candidate for Medieval saint of the week.)




This is from the tomb of one of the Ermengols.  I should have taken better notes at this point in our visit.

Not everything we saw at The Cloisters was religious in nature.  They also have the only known complete deck of playing cards from the 15th century.  These cards are very similar to modern cards, except their suits are horns, dog collars, hound tethers, and nooses.


 

We went outside for a while for a bite and to admire the gorgeous gardens.  Here is a picture of Renee with New Jersey in the background.




And then it was time for us to bid The Cloisters adieu and head back to the city and civilization.





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