Situated in Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, the Met Cloisters are an attraction that many natives of New York City may not even know about. Because the Cloisters are roughly five miles from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it’s pretty easy to explore the Met without even knowing of this branch of the museum. However, if you have any interest whatsoever in Medieval art and architecture, the Cloisters should be high on your list of places to visit.
The Met Cloisters started with the collection of American sculptor George Grey Barnard. While studying art in France, he supplemented his income by scouring the French countryside for architectural artefacts from the ruins of abbeys and churches primarily from the 12th century which he then resold. Many of the items he purchased had been reused for other purposes, such as a tomb effigy for a 13th century crusader being used to bridge a stream. Bayrnard saw the value in these antiquities and created a collection primarily based on four of the cloisters he salvaged items from, and in 1914 he opened a gallery in Manhattan.
By 1925 Barnard was experiencing a financial crisis and sold his collection to John D. Rockefeller Jr. for $700,000. Rockefeller envisioned a new branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in which the building itself incorporated architectural elements in Barnard’s collection and recreated the feeling of actually visiting a cloister. He hired Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, to plan the grounds, and as the museum was located atop a steep hill with a magnificent vista of the Hudson River and Palisades, NJ, Rockefeller bought a large tract of land across the river to preserve the view. The museum opened in May 1938 and contains many items donated by wealthy New York banker J. P. Morgan and Hungarian art dealer Joseph Brummer. It is currently one of the premier collections of Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture primarily spanning the 12th and 15th centuries.
There’s something profound and humbling about viewing artwork that’s many centuries old – trying to imagine how it survived all of that time, the lives of those who made/viewed it, what it represented to them. The hands that shaped it are long gone. The buildings the art was displayed in and those who commissioned it are largely forgotten. You’ll never know all the stories behind the art, that’s mostly gone too. And yet somehow something remains, a little window into another time. As their time has passed, so too will ours. Maybe in centuries to come a column or a painting will be incorporated into another museum. Those visiting will be viewing us through a fog, stripped of context and understanding. We’ll be the ghosts. Our hard drives will have failed long ago, our papers will have rotted or burned. The plastics will still be there, just as microparticles. The portraits that remain will be of faces that turned to dust. What will survive even 500 years? Who will be left to view it?
Today, visitors can ponder these questions while enjoying a collection consisting of roughly 5,000 artifacts and objects ranging from wooden and stone statues to gilded chalices, ornate crosses and tapestries, stained glass, and parts of the museum building itself such as doorways and columns that were rescued and built into the structure. There is also a gorgeous interior courtyard that is a perfect place to rest and contemplate. The museum has themed areas including a monastery, castle, and church that all offer distinct and stunning artwork to view. The museum also offers tours, classes, and workshops. Admission is $30 for adults, $22 for seniors, $17 for students, children under 12 are free, and New York residents can pay what they wish for entry. You can plan your trip by visiting their website.
Matthew Christopher NY New York Aug 25, 2022 Arts History Museums