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The Cloisters evokes a time when knighthood was in ... Manhattan

September 2011

Do markets crash? Do armies clash? Do street-gangs go a-roistering? Then mute our horns, Fright not unicorns: Sing“We’ll go a-Cloistering” —Anon

After a month of earth tremors, wild winds and eight escaped lunatics pretending to run for president of my country, medieval meditation beckoned.

A half-hour from lower Manhattan were the pine-spreading hills of Fort Tryon Park with its spice gardens, and the hilltop Spanish, Italian and Flemish monasteries of The Cloisters. And while this sounds like an opium dream, the gorgeous, almost unknown site is all too real.

Actually, it started before the First World War, as the dream of an American architect smitten with 13th-century sculpture. Not terribly rich, he traipsed through Europe, amassing neglected tapestries, frescos and old doors from farms and warehouses, later opening a little private museum. In 1934, John D. Rockefeller Jr., hearing of these gems, bought the collection and land on the park, giving it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to construct buildings to hold them That could have been another museum. Instead, the Met managed to bring back walls, doors, towers and plans for and from dozens of monasteries in Europe, placing this collection into—yes—that dream of the Middle Ages in 1938 New York City.

I had last been there as a wee toddler, remembering only the 15th-century Hunt of the Unicorns tapestries. Nobody knows when they were made, but these graphic hangings showing the unicorn, the chase and—oh, how I cried as a child—the slaying of the beautiful white animal. (I cried then, but the unicorn was symbol of purity as well, so its death is still a mystery.) Today, I was astounded by the unicorns but even more, by the so-real hunting dogs and the glory of the hunt. The Unicorn Tapestry Room is but one of the splendors in this wondrous group of ancient buildings overlooking the Hudson River and all that is manic in Manhattan itself.

It was a sudden decision, but the subway ride to upper Manhattan left me in front of the park, with a long road to climb, through wildflowers until the sign Quiet Zone, and then the basilica appeared above the treetops.

I have seen enough bell-towers in Italy and France. The Cloisters is a literal time trip. Inside the hall, the rooms, gardens, chapels and corridors branch out, in all directions, and we all have our favourites.

Outside the Unicorn Tapestries, I take the Hall of the Heroes. You enter through a flamboyant gothic gate, and the tapestries show gorgeous reproductions of Alexander the Great or Hector of Troy (nobody has ascertained which), then Julius Caesar (surrounded by rollicking musicians).

The Cloisters’ Hunt of the Unicorn shows the chase and the slaying of the animal. Photo: Harry Rolnick

The Jews are represented by David and Joshua (together!), with Judas Maccabaeus. I love this one, for the warrior is surrounded by lords and ladies of the medieval court.

Third favourite is the Fuentudeña Chapel. Here are more animals—a distended camel tapestry, lots and lots of dogs and rabbits carved into the endless lintels, and all the mythical animals of the bestiary.

Nor can one miss the Late Gothic Hall, where the centrepiece is a realistic free-standing donkey upon which is the figure of Jesus.

The Cloisters has three or four large chapels with the usual statuary. But I couldn’t possibly overlook the Pontaut Chapter House. This has little statuary, but this—the original 12th-century Benedictine Chapel near Bordeaux—was where monks came to discuss business, talk about grape wine and prayers and God and sin.

One does get confused after a while with the multitude of columns and heavy doors, the cavernous chambers and the imagery. Yet every few minutes, you look outside to see one of the monastic gardens containing perhaps 300 different flowers, trees, medicinal herbs and spices.

It rained, and leaves of fig trees dripped onto strawberry plants with sage, rosemary and thyme peeking up amid the black pepper and ginger.

The most radiant collection is in the basement. The Treasury is for the elite. Tiny Books of Hours, given by monarchs to wives, the most beautiful reliquary (where saintly bones are kept), its golden arm pointing upward, gold and silver treasures.

Concerts were given here each month, the sounds of timbrels and lutes and hunting horns. Not for hunting mythical creatures or serenading saints, but drifting upward. Going down the hill (getting lost, using the Hudson as a mearstone), I realized that, lacking unicorns or saints, New York has its Jungian dreams of an older time. The Cloisters, because it is not a museum, gives play to visions of rare beatific memories.



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