The Cloisters facts for kids
View of the main entrance
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|Established||May 10, 1938|
|Location||99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park
Manhattan, New York City
|Public transit access||Subway:
190th Street or Dyckman Street, Dyckman Street
Bus: Bx7, M4, M100
U.S. Historic district
|Part of||Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters (ID78001870)|
|Added to NRHP||December 19, 1978|
The Cloisters, also known as the Met Cloisters, is a museum in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, Manhattan, New York City, specializing in European medieval art and architecture, with a focus on the Romanesque and Gothic periods. Governed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it contains a large collection of medieval artworks shown in the architectural settings of French monasteries and abbeys. Its buildings are centered around four cloisters—the Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem, Bonnefont and Trie—that were acquired by American sculptor and art dealer George Grey Barnard in France before 1913, and moved to New York. Barnard's collection was bought for the museum by financier and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Other major sources of objects were the collections of J. P. Morgan and Joseph Brummer.
The museum's building was designed by the architect Charles Collens, on a site on a steep hill, with upper and lower levels. It contains medieval gardens and a series of chapels and themed galleries, including the Romanesque, Fuentidueña, Unicorn, Spanish and Gothic rooms. The design, layout, and ambiance of the building are intended to evoke a sense of medieval European monastic life. It holds about 5,000 works of art and architecture, all European and mostly dating from the Byzantine to the early Renaissance periods, mainly during the 12th through 15th centuries. The varied objects include stone and wood sculptures, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts and panel paintings, of which the best known include the c. 1422 Early Netherlandish Mérode Altarpiece and the c. 1495–1505 Flemish Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries.
Rockefeller purchased the museum site in Washington Heights in 1930, and donated it and the Bayard collection to the Metropolitan in 1931. Upon its opening on May 10, 1938, the Cloisters was described as a collection "shown informally in a picturesque setting, which stimulates imagination and creates a receptive mood for enjoyment".
Formation and history
The design for the 66.5-acre (26.9 ha) site at Fort Tryon Park was commissioned by the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1917, when he purchased the Billings Estate and other properties in the Fort Washington area and hired Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of one of the designers of Central Park, and the Olmsted Brothers firm to create a park, which he donated to New York City in 1935. As part of the overall project, Rockefeller acquired the medieval art collection of George Grey Barnard, an American sculptor and collector, who had already established a medieval-art museum near his home in Fort Washington, which he sold to the Metropolitan during one of his frequent financial crises. Barnard's collection was purchased along with a pieces from Rockefeller's holdings, including the Unicorn Tapestries. These became the foundation and core of the Cloisters collection.
The Cloisters and the adjacent 4 acres (1.6 ha) gardens are situated in Fort Tryon Park, and were constructed with grants and endowments from Rockefeller. Construction took place over a five-year period beginning in 1934. He also bought several hundred acres of the New Jersey Palisades, which he later donated to the State of New Jersey, to help preserve the view from the museum. This land is now part of the Palisades Interstate Park. Rockefeller was impacted by the great depression of the early 1930s, and while he often had to delay projects, honoured his earlier commitments.
The Cloisters building was designed by Charles Collens, and incorporated elements from the five cloistered abbeys of Catalan, Occitan and French origins. Parts from Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Bonnefont-en-Comminges, Trie-sur-Baïse, and Froville were disassembled stone-by-stone and shipped to New York City, where they were reconstructed and integrated into a cohesive whole. In 1988, the Treasury Gallery within the Cloisters, containing objects used for liturgical celebrations, personal devotions, and secular uses, was renovated. Other galleries were refurbished in 1998 and 1999.
The Cloisters is a well-known New York City landmark and has been used as a filming location. In 1948, the filmmaker Maya Deren used its ramparts as a backdrop for her experimental film Meditation on Violence. In the same year, German director William Dieterle used the Cloisters as the location for a convent school in his film Portrait of Jennie. The 1968 film Coogan's Bluff used the site's pathways and lanes for a scenic motorcycle chase.
The museum contains architecture elements and settings relocated mostly from four French medieval abbeys: the Cuxa, Bonnefort, Trie and Saint-Guilhem cloisters. Between 1934 and 1939 they were transported, reconstructed and integrated with new buildings, in a project overseen by the architect Charles Collens. The exterior building is influenced by and contains elements from the 13th century church at Saint-Geraud at Monsempron, France, from which the northeast end of the building borrows especially. It was primarily designed by Collins, who took influence from Bernard's original Cloisters Museum.
Rockefeller's main concerns were providing an architectural feature that would memorialise the north hill as a reminder of the area's history as a revolutionary site, and also provide views over the Hudson River. The exterior contains stone from a number of European sources, and was built from 1935, primarily from limestone and granite. It includes four Gothic windows from the refectory at Sens, and nine arcades from a priory at Firiory. The bulbous Fuentidueña Chapel was especially difficult to fit into the area.
The Cuxa Cloisters are located on the south side of the building and structurally and thematically are the museum's centerpiece. They are from the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Mount Canigou in the northeast French Pyrenees, founded in 878. The monastery was abandoned in 1791. Around half of the building was relocated to New York, after it was purchased by Barnard in 1906 and 1907. Until then it had been in disrepair; its roof had collapsed in 1835, followed by its bell tower in 1839. They were then acquired by John D. Rockefeller Jr in 1925, and their installation was one of the first major undertakings by the Metropolitan after it had acquired and absorbed his Barnard's collection. After intensive work over fall and winter 1925–26, the Cuxa cloister was opened to the public on April 1, 1926.
The Cuxa cloisters are placed at the center of the museum; its quadrangle-shaped garden once formed a center around which monks slept in cells. Its original garden seemed to have lined walkways around adjoining arches lined with capitals enclosing the garth. The oldest plan of the original building describes lilies and roses. It is impossible to now represent all medieval species and arrangements; those in the Cuxa are approximations by botanists specializing in medieval history. The intersection of the two walkways contains an eight sided fountain.
The walls are modern, while the capitals and columns were cut from Languedoc marble, a pink stone from the Pyrenees. They capitals were cut at different points in its history, and thus contain a variety forms and more abstract geometric patterns, including scrolling leaves, pine cones, sacred figures such as Christ, the Apostles, and angels, as well as monstrous creatures such as two headed animals, lions restrained by apes, hybrids, monstrous mouths consuming naked human torsos, and a mermaid.
The motifs are derived from popular fables, or represent the brute forces of nature or evil, or are based on late 11th and 12th century monastic writings, such as those by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). The order in which the capitals were originally placed is unknown, making their interpretation especially difficult, although an overall sequential and continuous narrative was probably never intended. According to art historian Thomas Dale, to the monks, the "human figures, beasts, and monsters" may have represented the "tension between the world and the cloister, the struggle to repress the natural inclinations of the body".
The four walkways of the Bonnefont cloisters surround a medieval herb garden. The Bonnefont cloisters are a composite from a number of monasteries from the region, in large part from a late 12th century Cistercian abbey at Bonnefont-en-Comminges, southwest of Toulouse in southern France. The abbey was intact until at least 1807, when it was documented. By the 1850s, any of its architectural features had been removed, and could be found in the surrounding areas, decorating public and private buildings. Today the cloisters contain twenty-one double capitals, surrounding a garden that contains many typical features of the medieval period, including a wellhead, raised flower beds, and fences lined with acacia. The marbles are highly ornate and decorate, some contain two registers, some with grotesque figures. The garden contains raised beds bordered by bricks and wattle fences.
The remnants of the Bonnefont cloisters were acquired by Barnard in 1937. The garden contains a medlar tree found in The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, and is centered around a wellhead in use since the 12th century. The entrance to the tapestries room is via a limestone portal from the Chateau de la Roche-Gencay Pitio, France, c. 1520-30. It was acquired by Bernard along with "one hundred Gothic objects", financed by Rockefeller.
The Trie cloister were originally part of a convent for Carmelite nuns at Trie-sur-Baïse, in south-western France. The original abbey, except for the church, was destroyed by Huguenots in 1571. Like those from Saint-Guilhem, the Trie cloisters have been roofed. A number of small and narrow buttresses were added to the exterior by the curator Joseph Breck, who based the design on features at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, England.
The convent originally contained 81 white marble capitals, carved between 1484-1490. Eighteen are now at The Cloisters, and contain numerous biblical scenes and incidents form the lives of saints. There is evidence of secularization in some of the carvings, with biblical scenes merged with characters from legend, including Saint George and the Dragon. Examples include a "wild man" confronting a grotesque monster, and the droll head wearing a very unusual and fanciful hat. The biblical capitals are placed in chronological order, beginning with God in the act of creation at the north west corner, Adam and Eve in the west gallery, followed by and Abraham sacrificing Isaac, and Matthew and John writing their gospels. Capitals in the south gallery illustrate scenes from the life of Christ, from the Annunciation to the Entombment.
The Trie cloisters surround a rectangular garden which hosts around 80 species of plants, and contains a tall limestone waterfall at the center. The waterfall is a composite of two late 15th- to early 16th-century French structures.
The Saint-Guilhem cloisters originate from the site of the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. The architectural elements date from 804 to the 1660s. From 1906, around 140 pieces were transferred to New York as one of Barnard's early acquisitions, including capitals, columns and pilasters. The site marked an important stopping point in the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
The unusual and innovative carvings on the marble piers and column shafts are in places coiled by extravagant foliage, including vines, and recall Roman sculpture. The capitals contain acanthus leaves and grotesque heads peering out, including representations of the Presentation at the Temple, Daniel in the Lions' Den, and the Mouth of Hell, and a number of pilasters and columns. The carvings seem preoccupied with the evils of hell. Those beside the mouth of hell contain representations of the devil, tormenting beasts, with, according to art historian Bonnie Young, "animal-like body parts and cloven hoofs [as they] herd naked sinners in chains to be thrown into an upturned monster's mouth".
The Saint-Guilhem cloisters is located in an indoor section of the building, and is smaller than its original incarnation. It covered by a skylight and plate glass panels which conserves heat in the winter months. Its plant are mostly potted or in containers, including a 15th-century glazed earthenware vase. The small garden contains a central fountain.
Chapels and halls
The Gothic chapel faces northeast and consists of two stories overlooked by stained glass and double-lancet windows, primarily a lancet window carved on both sides, which originates from the church of La Tricherie, between Tours and Poitiers, France. The window is positioned at the south end of the Early Gothic Hall, looking into the Gothic Chapel. It is entered at ground level via a large abbey door at its east wall. The hall begins with a pointed Gothic arch, leading to high bayed ceilings, ribbed vaults and buttress on the exterior.
The apse contains a large limestone sculpture of Saint Margaret dated to c. 1330 and from Lleida, Spain. The glass windows are of the 14th century with a depiction of Saint Martin and complex medallion patterns, the three center windows are from the church of Saint Leonhard, in southern Austria, from c. 1340. The glass on the east wall comes from the abbey of Evron, Normandy, and dates from around 1325.
The Gothic chapel contains four tombs, each a supreme example of sepulchral art. Three of the tombs are from the Bellpuig de las Avellanes monastery, in northern Spain. The effigy of a young boy is from the church of Santa Maria at Casttello de Farfanya. They were built for counts, their wives and children, each with a commemorative tombstone sculptural effigy. The family is associated with the church of Santa Maria at Castello de Farfanya, which was redesigned in the Gothic style by Ermengol X, who was dead by 1314.
The sepulchral monument is thought to contain Ermengol VI (d. 1184). The structure is supported by three stone lions, with a group of mourners carved into the effigy slab. The panels below him show Christ in Majesty, flanked by the Twelve Apostles.
The female effigy was sourced in Normandy, dates to the mid 13th century, and is perhaps of Margaret of Gloucester. Although resting on a modern base, she is dressed in the height of contemporary aristocratic fashion, including a cotte, jewel studded belt and mantle, and an elaborate ring necklace brooch.
The exterior was heavily reworked by Breck and Harold B. Willis around 1932-33. Keen to achieve both architectural harmony and preserbed the proportions of the original building, they heightened the chapel, enlarged the windows, and added side windows to the bay by the asp.
The Fuentidueña hall is the museum's largest room. It opens with oak doors flanked by sculptures of leaping animals. It is built around the Fuentidueña Apse, a semicircular Romanesque apse dated c. 1175–1200, from the San Martín church at Fuentidueña, Segovia. The room contains a hanging crucifix and frescos honoring the Virgin Mary. The chapel consists of a rectangular courtyard with covered walk ways, and beds of flowering shrubs and plants.
The apse was built from over 3,300 individual stone blocks, mostly sandstone and limestone, which were shipped to New York in 839 individual crates. It was such a major and large installation into the Cloisters that it necessitated the knocking of the former "Special Exhibition Room". It was opening to the public in 1961, seven years after the transfer, its re-instillation was a major and highly innovative undertaking. The new space seeks to emulate a single aisle nave.
The capitals supporting arch portray the Adoration of the Magi and Daniel in the lions' den. Its piers contain the figures of Saint Martin of Tours on the left, and the angel Gabriel announcing to The Virgin on the right. The Fuentidueña room includes a number of other, mostly contemporary medieval art works set within the Fuentidueña Apse. They include, in its dome, a large fresco c. 1130–50, from the Spanish Church of Sant Joan de Tredòs, in its colorisation resembling a Byzantine mosaic and is dedicated to the ideal of Mary as the mother of God. Hanging within the apse is a c. 1150–1200 crucifix from the convent of St. Clara at Astudillo.
By the 19th century the church was long abandoned and in disrepair. In the late 1940s the apse was moved and reconstructed in The Cloisters, a process than involved the shipping of almost 300 blocks of stone from Spain to New York. The acquisition followed three decades of complex negotiation and diplomacy between the Spanish church and both countries art historical hierarchies and governments. It was eventually exchanged in a deal that involved the transfer of six frescoes from San Baudelio de Berlanga to the Prado, on an equally long term loan.
The Lagon Chapel is entered from the Romanesque hall via the doorway from Moutiers-Saint-Jean, a large Gothic doorway of elaborate French architecture, with a massive oak door. It was sourced from Moutiers-Saint-Jean Abbey in Burgundy, France. Carvings on the elaborate white oolitic limestone doorway depict the Coronation of the Virgin, and contains foliated capitals, statuettes on the outer piers, two kings positioned in the embrasures, and various kneeling angels. Carvings of angels hover in the archivolts above the kings.
The Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Bourg de Digne chapel dates from c. 1126. The Pontault Chapter house consists of a single aisle nave, projecting transepts is taken from a small parish Benedictine church of c. 1115 from Notre Dame de Pontaut, then in neglect and disrepair. When acquired its upper level was a storage place for tobacco. About three quarters of its original stonework was relocated to New York. Moutiers-Saint-Jean was sacked, burned and rebuilt a number of times; in 1567 the Huguenot army cut off the heads the two kings.
In 1797 the entire building was sold as rubble for rebuilding. It lay in ruin for decades, with the sculpture severely defaced, before the door's transfer to New York, where it is now situated between the Romanesque Hall and the Langon Chapel. The doorway was the main portal of the abbey, was probably built as the south transept door, facing the cloister. The sculptured forms of the donors flanking either side of the doorway, probably represent the early Frankish kings Clovis I (d. 511), who converted to Christianity c 496 and his son Chlothar I (d. 561). The piers are lined with elaborate and highly detailed rows of statuettes, which are mostly set in niches, and baldly damaged; most have been decapitated
The heads on the right hand capital were for a time assumed to represent Henry II of England. Seven capitals survive from the original church, with carvings of human heads or figures, some now conformed as identifiable as historical persons, including of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The Romanesque hall is noted for its three great church doorways. The monumental arched Burgundian entrance is from Moutier-Saint-Jean de Réôme, France, and dated to c. 1150. Two animals are carved into the keystones, both on their hind legs as if about to attack each other. The capitals are lined with carvings of both real and imagined animals and birds, as well as leaves and other fauna. The two other, earlier doorways are from Reugny, Indre-et-Loire and Poitou in central France. The hall contains four large early 13th-century stone sculptures representing the Adoration of the Magi, and frescoes of a lion and a wyvern, each from the Monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza, in north central Spain. On the left of the room are portraits of kings and angels, also from the monastery at Moutier-Saint-Jean.
The hall contains the remnants of a church at the small Augustinian church at Reugny, consisting of three pairs of columns over a door with molded archivolts. Records indicate an upper "new cloisters" installed before 1206. The site was badly damage during the French Wars of Religion and again with the French Revolution. Most of it had been sold by 1850 to Piere-Yon Verniere, from whom Barnard acquired the bricks and stone in 1906.
The Cloisters is fortified, as would have been the original churches and abbeys. During times of invasion, well developed and productive gardens would have been essential for survival. Today the gardens of the Cloisters contain a wide variety of mostly rare medieval species, amounting to over 250 genera of plants, flowers, herbs and trees, making it one of the world's most important collection of specialized gardens. Their design was overseen by during the museums build by James Rorimer, aided by Margaret Freeman, who conducted extensive research into both the keeping of plants and their symbolism in the Middle Ages.
Today the gardens are tended by a staff of horticulturalists; the senior members are also historians and researchers on medieval gardening techniques.
The Cloisters contains approximately five thousand individual European medieval works of art, mostly from the 12th to 15th centuries. It holds several ivory c. 1300 Gothic Madonna ivory statuettes, mostly French, with some English examples. Other major works include the Flemish tapestries The Hunt of the Unicorn (c. 1495–1505, probably woven in Brussels or Liège), the Nine Heroes tapestries, and the and the 12th-century ivory Cloisters Cross.
The museum has an extensive collection of ceilings, frescoes, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, porcelain statuettes, reliquarys, wood and iron sculptures and Gothic boxwood miniatures. It holds liturgical vessels, and rare pieces of Gothic furniture and metalwork. Many are not associated with a particular architectural setting, so their placement in the museum may vary.
Tapestry from the Hunt of the Unicorn, Brussels or Liège, c 1495 - 1505
The Cloisters' collection of stained glass includes almost three hundred panels, mostly French and Germanic, mostly from the 3rd to the early 16th century. They are characterized by vivid colors and often abstract designs and patterns. Many are made from hand made opalescent glass. Typical of the development of such art works, the collections' pot-metal works (i.e. containing colorants) from the High Gothic period highlight the effects of light, especially interplay between darkness and illumination.
The collection grew from acquisitions in the early 20th century by Raymond Picairn, who was acquiring at a time when medieval glass was not a highly sought by connoisseurs. There were a number of reasons for this, including the fact that pieces were not easily extractable, and even then difficult to transport.
Jane Hayward, a curator at the museum from 1969, believed stained glass was "unquestioningly the preeminent form of Gothic medieval monumental painting", and began its second phase of acquisition. She bought c. 1500 heraldic windows from the Rhineland, now in the Campin room with the Mérode Altarpiece, acquired in 1950. Hayward's 1980 addition lead to a redesign of the room so that the installed pieces would echo the domestic setting of the altarpiece. She wrote that the Campin room is the only gallery in the Met "where domestic rather than religious art predominates, [because] a conscious effort has been made to create fifteenth-century domestic interior similar to the one shown in [Campin]'s Annunciation panel."
Other acquisitions from this time include c. 1265 grisaille panels from the Château-de-Bouvreuil in Rouen, the Cathedral of Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais at Sées, and panels from the Acezat collection, now in the Heroes Tapestry Hall.
Grisaille panel with interlace and foliage pattern, Château-de-Bouvreuil, Rouen, France, c. 1265
The museum has collected four medieval illuminated books, each of the first rank and of major art-historical interest. Their acquisition was a significant achievement for the museum's early collectors—but consensus among the ruling hierarchy believed the Cloisters should focus on architectural elements, sculpture and decorative arts, which would enhancing the environmental quality of the institution. Manuscripts were considered more suited to the Morgan Library in lower Manhattan.
The museum has four books of exceptional rarity and quality in its collection; the French "Cloisters Apocalypse" (c. 1330), the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (c. 1325–28), the Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg and the Limbourg brothers' Belles Heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1399–1416).
Library and archives
The Cloisters Library is one of the Metropolitan Museum's thirteen libraries. It contains 15,000 volumes of books, its archive administration papers, the personal papers of Barnard, early glass lantern slides of museum materials, curatorial papers, museum dealer records, scholars records, recordings of musical performances at the museum and maps.
- Bayard, Tania. Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of the Cloisters. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985
- Dale, Thomas E. A. "Monsters, Corporeal Deformities, and Phantasms in the Cloister of St-Michel-de-Cuxa". The Art Bulletin, volume 83, no. 3, September, 2001
- Deuchler, Florens; Hoffeld, Jeffrey; Nickel, Helmut. "The Cloisters Apocalypse: An Early Fourteenth-Century Manuscript in Facsimile". New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971
- Deuchler, Florens. "The Cloisters: A New Center for Mediaeval Studies". The Connoisseur 172, November 1969
- Forstyh, William. A Gothic Doorway from Moutiers-Saint-Jean. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979
- Horste, Kathryn. "Romanesque Sculpture in American Collections". Gesta 21, no. 2, 1982
- Hoving, Thomas. King of the Confessors. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981
- Husband, Timothy. "Creating the Cloisters". The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, volume 70, no. 4, Spring, 2013
- Husband, Timothy. "Medieval Art and the Cloisters". The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Volume 59, No. 1, "In: Ars Vitraria: Glass in the Metropolitan Museum of Art", 2001
- Rorimer, James J. The Cloisters. The Building and the Collection of Mediaeval Art in Fort Tryon Park, 11th edition, New York 1951
- Rorimer, James J. "A Treasury at the Cloisters". The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Volume 6, No. 9, 1948
- Siple, Ella. "Medieval Art at the New Cloisters and Elsewhere". The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Volume 73, No. 425, 1938
- Tomkins, Calvin. "The Cloisters ... The Cloisters ... The Cloisters". The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Volume 28, No. 7, 1970
- Uzig, Nicholas M. "(Re)casting the Past: The Cloisters and Medievalism". The Year's Work in Medievalism, Georgia Institute of Technology, 2012
- Wixom, William. "Medieval Sculpture at The Cloisters". The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, volume 46, no. 3, Winter, 1988–1989.
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