Thursday, November 16, 2023

Art Eyewitness Essay: A Pilgrimage to the Cloisters Museum in New York City


 A Pilgrimage to the Cloisters Museum, New York City      

By Ed Voves

There is no such thing as a casual trip to the Cloisters Museum in New York City. 

Every visit to the Cloisters is an adventure, a pilgrimage and - in my experience - a bit of an ordeal. But epic quests require dedication and exertion - and the rewards of a journey to the Cloisters are well worth the effort.

The Cloisters, a branch museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, specializes in the art of the Middle Ages in Western Europe. Among the sensational works of art on view are the Unicorn Tapestries, saved, as we shall discuss, from destruction during the French Revolution.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) 
The Unicorn Tapestries Gallery at the Cloisters Museum 

Opened to the public in 1938, the Cloisters is a fascinating cultural institution with a storied past. Located in Fort Tryon Park near the northern tip of Manhattan, the Cloisters overlooks the Hudson River and the monumental, magical Palisades cliffs on the opposite, New Jersey, side of the river. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) 
The Hudson River and Palisades seen from the Bonnefont Cloister 

I visited the Cloisters recently, the third trek I have made there over the course of my life. I was prepared - somewhat - for the undertaking: two hours by cab and bus from mid-town Manhattan, following an early morning Amtrak ride from Philadelphia. I can hardly complain as medieval pilgrims experienced far more travail on their journeys to shrines like Santiago de Compostela.

Why is the Cloisters situated in Fort Tryon Park rather than a more convenient enclave of Central Park? 

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) 
The Trie Cloister with Cross with Apostles & Capital, late 1400's-1500's

From its conception, the Cloisters was planned to be a museum which would do more than display medieval art. In addition to presenting the Unicorn Tapestries and other signature artworks, the Cloisters would cultivate the religious spirit and cultural milieu of the Middle Ages. 

Though most of its stone structure dates to the early twentieth century, the Met's Cloisters is so "medieval" in spirit that it served as the setting for a convent in the 1948 film, Portrait of Jennie, starring Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotton. 

Filming Portrait of Jennie at the Cloisters, 1948

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, members of Christian religious orders, following the precepts of St. Benedict, withdrew to remote, rural areas. In these secluded communities, devout monks and nuns devoted themselves to God with prayer and hard work. The plans for the Cloisters aimed to provide a similar atmosphere for art lovers, away from the hustle and bustle of "Museum Mile."

Efforts to preserve the ambiance of the Middle Ages in upper Manhattan were already underway in nearby Washington Heights decades before the 1938 opening of the Met's Cloisters. During the years before World War I, the American sculptor George Grey Barnard (1863-1938) collected an impressive array of medieval artworks, mostly architectural fragments from abandoned churches and monasteries in France and Spain, and brought these treasures to the then-rural northern edge of Manhattan.

George Grey Barnard with the English writer and artist, 
Clare Sheridan, at Barnard's Cloisters, 1922

At the present-day site of Fort Washington Ave and 190th Street, Barnard erected a church-like brick building. Here, he configured his architectural fragments, arranged to replicate the design of monastic institutions, especially the central precinct known as a cloister. A succinct definition of a cloister describes it as "an open court with a covered and arcaded passageway along the sides... Most of the monks' activities, other than those of worship, centered in the cloister. It was there that they walked in meditation, had their school, studied, and sometimes even copied manuscripts."

Barnard aimed to restore both the physical setting of the medieval cloisters and the blend of communal living and high-minded thought which characterized the monasteries of the European Middle Ages. 

Barnard succeeded brilliantly and when his collections passed to the stewardship of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the architectural plan for the new Cloisters Museum featured four rebuilt cloisters in prominent roles: the Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem, Bonnefont and Trie cloisters. The actual medieval fragments incorporated in all four of these cloisters had been acquired by Barnard.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) 
Cuxa Cloister and detail of a medieval architectural capital

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) 
Bonnefont Cloister and herb garden 

Barnard's Cloisters housed more than these venerable columns and capitals. A pair of time-weathered church doors from a monastery in the south of France swung-wide to reveal one of the finest collections of medieval art in the U.S. 

A particular favorite of mine among the works in Barnard's collection is the tomb effigy of A Knight of the d'Aluye Family, dated around 1248. This remarkable memorial featured in the Met's 2016 exhibition, Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
 Tomb Effigy of A Knight of the d''Aluye Family, after 1248

The knight depicted on this effigy or gisant was Jean d'Aluye, one of the Crusaders who combined faith with ferocity in the, ultimately unsuccessful, wars to regain the Holy Land for Christendom. Upon his return to France, d'Aluye founded the abbey of La Clarté-Dieu near Tours. This act of piety and patronage makes d'Aluye a role model, in a very real sense, for the man who would acquire his effigy, George Grey Barnard.

Barnard's Cloisters opened to the public a few days before Christmas 1914. It featured candle-lit lectures on the Middle Ages and innovative display methods with hardly a glass case on site. The appreciation of art enthusiasts, thwarted from visiting actual medieval sites in Europe by the "Great" War, and favorable reviews in the New York press were not long in coming. 

Barnard, however, was not a wealthy man. He financed his operations in-part by the sale of some of his rescued medieval treasures. By the early 1920's, there were fears that he would have to sell his entire collection, perhaps to a museum in an other region of the U.S.

In 1924, like a knight-errant, John D. Rockeller, Jr. (1874-1960) came to the rescue. Rockefeller purchased Barnard's collections, donating them to the Met, and funded the construction of a new, stone building designed to evoke the Romanesque style of the twelfth century. Rockefeller was not a man of half-measures. He purchased 66.5 acres, today's Fort Tryon Park, as the site of the new museum and additional land on the New Jersey-side of the Hudson River to preserve the stunning view and contemplative atmosphere.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) 
A view of the Hudson River from the Bonnefont Cloister garden.

Rockefeller also donated  works of medieval art from his private collection. These included  an ensemble of seven tapestries from the late 1400 's known as The Hunt of the Unicorn. Little is known of the original commission of the tapestries and the symbolism of the hunt and eventual taming of the unicorn is still a matter of scholarly debate. But the survival of the Unicorn Tapestries is an incredible story in own right.

By the time of the French Revolution, The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries had long been proud possessions of the aristocratic La Rochefoucauld family,.The tapestries were displayed in their magnificent chateau of Verteul in central France. When the Revolution turned violent, Verteul was targeted because of the Rochefoucauld association with the discredited French monarchy. However, the local revolutionary tribunal declared that the tapestries were free from the taint of the Ancien Regime and thus spared destruction.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries, ca. 1495-1505 
 "The Unicorn Rests in the Garden" 

The local peasants had other ideas. They decided that the sumptuous wall hangings would better serve as protective covers for their espaliered fruit trees and bins of potatoes, The Unicorn tapestries, set in a verdant realm filled with exquisite millefleurs, languished in this humdrum capacity for over half a century.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
An espaliered pear tree in the garden of the Bonnefont Cloister

During the 1850's, Count Hippolyte de La Rochefoucauld, searching for surviving relics of his family heritage, was informed of the location of the tapestries. The Count redeemed the much battered wall hangings - two of them reduced to fragments. After being cleaned and restored, the Unicorn tapestries made a triumphant return to the Chateau of Verteul, which the noble Count had also repaired. 

In 1923, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries for $1,000,000, an astronomical sum for the times. In 1937, Rockefeller rounded-off his incredible generosity by giving the tapestries to the Cloisters collection. Today, these priceless woven depictions of the pursuit, death and rebirth of the Christ-like Unicorn are so famous and beloved as to almost eclipse the rest of the art works on view in the Cloisters.

The Cloisters collection is so rich in medieval masterpieces that it cannot be characterized by one signature work of art, even of the magnitude of the Unicorn tapestries. Like the great monastic houses of medieval Europe, the Cloisters has a Treasury room where splendid works of religious art are displayed. Along with gleaming, golden chalices and other liturgical vessels used in Christian worship are some real surprises.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
Gallery view of the Treasury Room of the Cloisters

Medieval craftsman were masters of carving in many media, notably ivory - from whalebone, walrus teeth and, imported over vast distances, the curving tusks of elephants. Overwhelmingly, these intricately carved works served a religious or devotional purpose. 

Other hand-carved objects played a role in secular life, ivory sword grips or, less menacingly, chess pieces. The chess Bishop, with two attendants (below), looks formidable enough to hold the Lewis chessmen from the British Museum in check. Crafted from walrus ivory in Norway, 1150-1200, the Bishop formed part of a generous bequest to the Met from J. Pierpont Morgan.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
Medieval chess pieces at the Cloisters. From left, a Pawn and a Bishop, Scandinavia, 1100's, & a Knight, ca.1510-30, from England or Germany

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
The Cloisters Cross on view in the Treasury Room of the Cloisters

 Another masterpiece, carved from walrus ivory, is The Cloisters Cross. Most likely created in England around 1150, It is one of the supreme works of Romanesque art. It is carved with ninety-two figures and ninety-eight inscriptions related to the story of Jesus' death and resurrection.

An even more unlikely material for use in carving a religious image is amber.  Since antiquity, the lands bordering the Baltic Sea have been a source for this semi-precious material, composed of fossilized pine resin. During the late Middle Ages, a school of amber-carving developed in the Baltic region, under the control of the Teutonic Knights. This was an order of warrior-monks, who, instead of serving in the Holy Land with Jean d'Aluye, marched into present-day Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in a combined operation of religious warfare and economic expansion. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
Medallion with the Face of Christ, ca. 1380-1400 

This astonishing amber image of Jesus, a little over three inches in diameter, was created in one of the Polish fiefdoms of the Teutonic Knights. No one knows what Jesus of Nazereth actually looked like, of course. But this "portrait" is positively uncanny, producing a face-to-face encounter with divinity, much like the spiritual experience induced by Byzantine icons. How ironic that this small, sacred object should have originated as a by-product of an unholy war.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
 Grisaille Panel Window, 1270-80, in the Langon Chapel of the Cloisters

Stained glass, another hallmark of medieval art, was not a major component of Barnard's collection.  Yet, the Cloisters now has one of the great collections of stained glass, rivaling that of the Glencairn Museum, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia. A visitor to the Cloisters can trace the fascinating evolution of stained glass from its beginnings in the twelfth century, slightly-tinted and with few designs, to the color-drenched narrative scenes of Gothic era cathedrals and the more modest, though incredibly detailed, silver stained roundels of the late-Middle Ages. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
Roundel with the Baptism of Christ, 1480-90

The impressive collection-building effort in the area of stained glass was due in part to an excellent working relationship of the Metropolitan Museum with the Glencairn Museum. Shortly before his death in 1966, James Rorimer, the first curator of the Cloisters and later director of the Met, met with Raymond Pitcairn, founder of Glencairn and a collector very much in the spirit of Barnard. As a result of the meeting, a special exhibition of Glencairn's medieval art was later shown at the Cloisters and a number of stained glass panels in Pitcairn's collection were eventually sold to the Met to fill in gaps in its collection.

One of the stained glass masterpieces from the Pitcairn collection now at the Cloisters is a panel showing the Christian emperor riding to meet the "Seven Sleepers of Ephesus." According to a charming, Rip van Winkle-like story, seven Christians fleeing Roman persecution had taken refuge in a cave, falling into a deep sleep and emerging centuries later.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
               Theodosius Arrives at Ephesus, from the Legend of the Seven Sleepers of  Ephesus stained glass panels, ca. 1200-1210 

This classic example of French Gothic stained glass struck a chord with me. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is currently displaying another panel in this "Seven Sleepers" series, one that remained in Pitcairn's collection. It can be seen in a special exhibition of Glencairn treasures, on view in the Philly Museum until March 10, 2024.

No account of the Cloisters Museum is complete without special mention of the apse of the Church of San Martin at Fuentidueña, Spain. It was acquired from the Spanish government by a special, "extended" loan, added on to the Cloisters building and opened to the public in 1961. A  medieval fresco of the Virgin Mary, from another Spanish church, was transferred to the Fuentidueña apse, making this one of the most inspirational museum spaces in the world.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
The Fuentidueña Church Apse, ca. 1175-1200, 
and Romanesque Crucifix from Spain, ca. 1150-1200

Rather, than add a brief, hasty description of the Fuentidueña display to an already lengthy essay, I am going to reserve further comments about this very special gallery for a future discussion of Romanesque art. Studying Romanesque art of the 1100's, the Twelfth Century Renaissance, was one of the primary motivations of my recent pilgrimage to the Cloisters.

Instead, I want to stay a brief moment more in the company of George Grey Barnard. He never lived to see the installation of the Fuentidueña Apse in the Cloisters in 1961. In fact, he died three weeks before the Met's Cloisters opened in 1938.

Walking around the Cloisters today is a delightful experience, but also a daunting one. There is so much to see and absorb. Since, the Cloisters is not, as I say, the easiest place to reach, naturally one wishes to see it all. Who knows if you will be able to make a return pilgrimage!

That is a modern, rather than medieval, way of visiting the Cloisters, one risking an informational "overload." Instead, let your spirit and emotions adjust to the meditative mindset which Barnard aimed to promote. Slow down and bask in the light pouring through the stained glass windows. Listen to the breeze rustling through the Cloisters gardens - and do the same, when you return to your own garden, back home.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
A moment of meditation in the Bonnefont Cloister garden.

Gather ye Unicorn Tapestry millefleurs while you may! But don't forget to stop and smell the flowers  - and the herbs in the Bonnefont Cloister garden.


Text and photo: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.

Introductory Image: Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Tower of the Cloisters Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) The Unicorn Tapestries Gallery at the Cloisters Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) The Hudson River and Palisades seen from the Bonnefont Cloister.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) The Trie Cloister with Cross with Apostles & Capital, late 1400's-1500's. Made in Vosges, France. Cross with Apostles. Stone: Overall: 47 1/4 x 33 7/16 x 14 3/16 inches (120 x 85 x 36 cm.) The Cloistered Collection, 1925.  # 25.120.872a

Filming Portrait of Jennie at the Cloisters, 1948. Photo source:

George Grey Barnard with the English writer and artist, Clare Sheridan, at Barnard's Cloisters, 1922. Photo by Ralph Pulitzer. Photo source: My American Diary by Clare Sheridan.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Cuxa Cloister and detail of a medieval architectural capital. Capital, ca.1130-1140. Made in France, Catalan culture. Marble: 18 x 15 1/2 x 18 in. (45.7 x 39.4 x 45.7 cm) The Cloisters Collection, 1925.# 25.120.855.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Bonnefont Cloister and herb garden.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)  Tomb Effigy of A Knight of the d''Aluye Family, after 1248-1267. Made in Loire Valley, France. Limestone13 × 33 1/2 × 83 1/2 in., 1197 lb. (33 × 85.1 × 212.1 cm, 543 kg) The Cloisters Collection. # 25.120.201

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) A view of the Hudson River from the Bonnefont Cloister garden.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries, ca. 1495-1505. "The Unicorn Rests in the Garden"Made in Paris, France (cartoon); woven in the Southern Netherlands.Wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts: Overall: 144 7/8 x 99 in. (368 x 251.5 cm). Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937. # 37.80.6

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) An espaliered pear tree in the garden of the Bonnefont Cloister.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)Gallery view of the Treasury Room of the Cloisters.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Medieval chess pieces at the Cloisters. From left, a Pawn and a Bishop, Scandinavia, 1100's, and a Knight, ca.1510-30, from England or Germany.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) The Cloisters Cross on view in the Treasury Room of the Cloisters. The Cloisters Cross, ca. 1150-60. Possibly made in England. Walrus ivory: overall: 22 5/8 x 14 1/4in. (57.5 x 36.2cm) shaft: 12 3/8 x 1 11/16 in. (31.4 x 4.3cm). The Cloisters Collection, 1963.# 63.12

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Medallion with the Face of Christ, ca. 1380-1400. Made in lands of the Teutonic Knights, present-day Poland. Baltic amber with traces of paint: 3 1/4 x 1 5/16 in. (8.2 x 3.3 cm). The Cloisters Collection, 2011. #2011.503

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Grisaille Panel Window, 1270-80, in the Langon Chapel of the Cloisters. Grisaille Panel, 1270–80. Made in Sées, France.White and pot-metal glass and vitreous paint, silver stain: Overall: 22 x 20 1/4in. (55.9 x 51.4cm)The Cloisters Collection, 1982. #1982.204.3

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Roundel with the Baptism of Christ, 1480-90. Made in Upper Rhineland, Germany. Colorless glass, vitreous paint and silver stain: Overall Diam.: 7 13/16 in. (19.8 cm). The Cloisters Collection, 1932. # 32.24.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) Theodosius Arrives at Ephesus from the  Legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus stained glass panels, ca. 1200-1210. Made in Rouen, France. Pot-metal glass, vitreous paint: Overall: 25 x 28 1/8in. (63.5 x 71.5cm) The Cloisters Collection, 1980. 1980.263.4

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) The Fuentidueña Church Apse, ca. 1175-1200, and Romanesque Crucifix from Spain, ca. 1150-1200. Crucifix, ca. 1150–1200. Made in Castile-León, Spain. White oak with paint, gold leaf, and tin leaf (corpus); softwood with paint and tin leaf (cross): Overall (cross): 102 1/2 x 81 3/4 in. (260.4 x 207.6 cm) Samuel D. Lee Fund, 1935. #35.36a.b

Ed Voves, Photo (2023) A moment of meditation in the Bonnefont Cloister garden.

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