Traveling near New York City? Don’t miss a combination of art and religious treasures in Fort Tryon Park. Even my RAM 1500, Bruce, fit into a parking space in this beautiful site high on a hill overlooking the Hudson River.
The Cloisters is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It contains beautiful works of medieval art and architecture. From period-authentic gardens, through displays of original tapestries, stained glass windows, ecclesial garments and vessels, reliquaries, altars, triptychs, and statues, the winding stone staircases and labyrinth of rooms provide moments of awe and fascination as you traverse this remarkable museum. John D. Rockefeller donated much of the art and the property. He even thoughtfully included land across the Hudson River to maintain the panoramic pastoral views from the Cloisters’ walls. It is hard to believe you are so close to Manhattan when you explore The Cloisters.
I especially enjoyed the famous Unicorn Tapestries. Seven of them dominate the walls of a large room, each depicting various stages of the hunt for a unicorn. The unicorn images are allegories of the life of Christ, as thoroughly explained by the docents albeit from a secular point of view. No dry and dead history here — instead you’ll find brilliantly colored weavings alive with the faith and devotion of the artisans who painstakingly created these works.
Woven from 1495-1505, the threads of silk, wool, silver and gilt portray realistic expressions and emotions on the faces of the hunters, as well as depictions of plants and animals in detail, with all elements combined into an integrated whole. The integrity and balance of the design is remarkable when one considers how it was woven.
I wonder if the artisans prayed before and while working, like the weavers of prayer shawls today do. As a preview and sample of what you might see and hear on a tour, here’s an eloquent explanation of one of the tapesties, The Unicorn in Captivity, among the many resources on the Met’s website.
The guided tour of the Cloister gardens is a must for anyone who enjoys gardening or has in interest in medicine or herbal supplements. Our guide explained the origin and use of the herbs in the gardens, and the gorgeous blooms and foliage made for some lovely pictures.
Delightful surprises await around every corner. The building incorporates pieces of old monasteries and churches and the rooms flow into open spaces and gardens, creating luminous vistas. Light filters through brilliant stained glass windows, which are displayed as originally intended — in dark rooms illuminated by the sun passing through the glass. Whimsical depictions of dragons and phoenixes crawl along the borders of arched passages.
You’ll find your own personal favorites among these many treasures. The Cloisters is more than a museum. Perhaps because of its use of pieces of original religious buildings and its display of art within context, it captures the holy seclusion and communal offering of work and prayer of the medieval monasteries. You expect to see monks gliding silently among the long corridors whose arches reach up to heaven.
The Cloisters also broadened my appreciation of medieval art by the variety of works it contains. One that particularly touched me was a wooden statue of Mary holding the child Jesus. I spent some time contemplating the joy and playfulness depicted by this lifelike carving. The artist captures the humanity of the amiling God Child and his Blessed Mother. I left with a smile on my face too!
Just down the hill from The Cloisters is the Saint Frances X. Cabrini Shrine NYC. I’ll post soon about my visit there, as it makes a great complement to the Cloisters in a single day. You can attend Mass and learn more about the patron saint of immigrants.
The Cloisters is located at 99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, New York, NY 10040. For more information, tour times, and tickets, visit https://www.metmuseum.org/visit/plan-your-visit/met-cloisters.