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Facing the Dark Ages

A close look at The Met Cloisters

Update: The Met Cloisters reopened on September 12, 2020. See the museum's website for ticket information.

The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 82-year-old home for its medieval collection in Fort Tryon Park (known as The Met Cloisters in recent years, the result of rebranding), dominates Northern Manhattan like a mystical fortress, like some object of a mythical quest. From nearly any direction, it’s easy to see the tower with its sandy-colored walls, double-arched windows, and Mediterranean style tile roof. Walking south on Broadway north of Dyckman Street, the way of everyday serfs and pilgrims going to market, the otherworldly sight of the imposing structure can transform an otherwise pedestrian journey. 

View of The Met Cloisters from the northeast


Culture and architect critic Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), reviewing the museum’s opening in 1938 for his regular column in The New Yorker, didn’t care much for the tower, but that was his only complaint. “The building,” he asserted, “is much closer to being a real monument altered to suit the needs of succeeding generations than anything else we have in America today.” 

The exterior walls of the museum, part Romanesque and part Gothic in their design, and some with buttresses, protect the interior gardens, the cloisters themselves. Central to religious life in the early Middle Ages, these open-air columned courtyards served as places for religious orders to contemplate and pray. Within the context of medieval Europe, where war was frequent and brutal, the interior cloisters provided safety. 

A little of that ancient peace still broods over this museum; you can
walk around one of these quiet gardens and even discover whether or not you have a soul.  - Lewis Mumford, “Pax in Urbe,” The New Yorker. May 21, 1938 

And how did the Middle Ages come to Northern Manhattan? The story of these stones, icons, carved windows, columns, and tapestries and their journey to New York begins in France with the Revolution of 1789. After the revolutionary assault on religious orders, France’s monasteries and abbeys gradually fell into decay and ruin. In the nineteenth century, antique dealers in Paris and elsewhere acquired many of the fragments of the abandoned cloisters.  

The Met Cloisters from the east drive


George Grey Barnard (1863-1938), a sculpture and art dealer with a stormy temperament and unskillful in personal finance, traveled to France and began acquiring many of these cloisters and artifacts in order to sell them and make ends meet. He was also passionate about the ruins he acquired. From 1911 to 1913 he began preliminary work on constructing a “chapel,” later a “cloister museum,” next to his home and studio on a windswept and barren hill at 698 Fort Washington Avenue in Northern Manhattan. In 1914, he initially opened the collection to the public. A more formal museum opening took place in 1925. 

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960), the son and fifth child of the co-founder of Standard Oil, assembled the team and finances to acquire Bernard’s collection and to begin planning a new museum. By 1930, Rockefeller had worked out a satisfactory agreement with the Metropolitan Museum of Art that the museum’s Gothic holdings would be centered in a new city park, Fort Tryon Park, in Northern Manhattan. He had acquired the surrounding lands from the previous landowners for the park and hired prominent architects and designers to realize the vision. An army of WPA laborers carried out the building of the museum and grounds.

The Met Cloisters from the south


While planning and construction was underway, at times delayed by the Great Depression, Rockefeller continued to donate rare items to the new museum’s collection. Among these were the “Gothic Tapestries,” a series of tapestries depicting the hunt of the unicorn that he acquired twelve years earlier. Rockefeller himself was busy with other projects about town, too, most notably the financing and construction of Rockefeller Center.

After considering and then rejecting an elaborate design based on the ruins of Kenilworth Castle, firing the architect with it, Rockefeller asked architect Charles Collins and curator Joseph Breck to come up with a more suitable plan. The two travelled to Europe to research source material and quickly pulled together a workable design. They agreed that the new Cloisters should take on the humble form of a fortified monastery. The surrounding ramparts would give the museum the appearance of a strong defense, as well as fortify the site of Fort Tryon, an important location during the American Revolution.   

    
The Cloisters design was inspired by a fortified monastery.
 
  
A typical walk through The Cloisters (when not shuttered during holidays or months of plague) flows from halls and well-worn stairs and into chapels and light, and in and out of the cloister courtyards and terraces. Medieval gardens be there. A stroll could begin in the Romanesque Hall and proceed through the Fuentidueña Chapel, the Saint-Guilhem Cloister, and the Langon Chapel, with an interlude to take in the sweeping views of the Hudson River from the West Terrace. Or, begin in the Late Gothic Hall and circle around to the Unicorn Tapestries, and then to the tomb effigies in the Gothic Chapel. 

All paths lead to the interior Cuxa Cloister. Fragments from the original Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, a Benedictine abbey built in the twelfth century (ca. 1130–40) in the northern Pyrenees, reside here. The monks abandoned the abbey in 1791 in the wake of the French Revolution. Barnard originally acquired the fragments for his museum, and the new museum added new construction to showcase the cloister. In spring and summer, the cloisters are full of flowers and fragrance. 

steps to east entrance


The museum formally opened to the public on May 10, 1938. On hand for the festivities were Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and museum president George Blumenthal. Curator Joseph Breck, so central to the vision of the museum and early acquisitions, had died five years prior while visiting friends in Switzerland. George Barnard had died a few weeks before the opening. In their remarks, the officials gushed over Rockefeller’s gift. Moses thanked him for buying out the property on the opposite shore in New Jersey so as not to obstruct the views of the Palisades. (Though now compromised.) 

When his turn came to speak, Rockefeller thanked Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. for the design for the surrounding Fort Tryon Park. He said he hoped the museum and grounds would “become another stimulating center for the profitable use of leisure…having the power to transform drab duty into radiant living.” 

closer view of the The Gothic Chapel at the Met Cloisters 


Mumford concluded his review of the new museum:

Maybe Mr. Rockefeller hasn’t given us just a museum. Maybe this is an experimental model to help us face more cheerfully the Dark Ages. If the crowds on the opening day are any indication, most of the sons and daughters of the machine age are willing to give the new prescription a try. Or was it just the publicity?

From Mumford’s viewpoint in 1938, “the Dark Ages” were certainly at hand. In the spring of 1938, Germany annexed Austria, Hitler toured Mussolini’s Florence, and in the fall, the Munich Agreement and Kristallnacht deepened the crisis. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, thousands of German Jews fled the country and settled in apartment buildings in Washington Heights south of Fort Tryon Park. The area, now commonly known as Hudson Heights, earned the nickname “Frankfurt on the Hudson.”  

View of the main tower from the Dyckman Street marina 

 
Visiting The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park has long remained a quest for visitors and many New Yorkers, a commitment of time and travel to the far off northern lands of Manhattan. In 2018, the museum attracted record attendance during the Met’s exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, organized by the Met’s Costume Institute

Due to the coronavirus, The Cloisters closed its doors on March 13, 2020, along with the other branches of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum has announced plans to open “as soon as August” of this summer. Still, climbing the steps up the hill to view the structure from the outside takes on aspects of a pilgrimage.  

A sloped path in Fort Tryon Park on the north side of The Cloisters


For the faithful, the idea of the cloisters remains a symbol of the broken world and our retreat from it. As stay-at-home orders have forced many to their own interior courtyards, at least in a psychic sense, will The Cloisters draw crowds when it reopens? Can The Cloisters once again help us face the new Dark Ages?

View of The Met Cloisters from Cooper Street, north of the museum.
With the help of a telephoto lens, the medieval world comes closer to the contemporary city. 


Sources and further reading:


Timothy B. Husband, “Creating the Cloisters,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Spring 2013. (link to downloadable pdf).

Lewis Mumford. “Pax in Urbe,” Sidewalk Critic: Lewis Mumford's Writings on New York. November 1, 1998 by Robert Wojtowicz

To see images of the interior and what the museum looked liked when the Middle Ages met high fashion - see review on this website: “The Heavenly Way to the Met Cloisters,” Walking Off the Big Apple, May 10, 2018

"The Met Cloisters: An Unlikely Pair Makes a Home for Medieval Art in New York City." By Elizabeth Berkowitz. Rockefeller Archive Center. (link)

The Met Cloisters (official site)

Digital Collections, Met Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters : opening exercises, Fort Tryon Park, May Tenth, 1938 : exercises in the Late Gothic Hall at 3:30 p.m. (link)

National Park Service. The Design Process: Fort Tryon Park. (link)

Images from May and June 2020.

The map below includes a suggested pilgrimage by foot from the A train at Dyckman Street (when nonessential travel permits).

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