Posted by: Christine | May 29, 2009

Cloister Day

This past Tuesday, I had the fortune of meeting up with my friend Todd in NYC for the day.  We planned on seeing the Cloisters Museum up above Harlem, as I had never been there before and wanted to go pretty badly.  I love seeing religious art, especially when it’s set against the backdrop of historical architecture.


Getting There  After an hour’s worth of fussing in and out of the wrong subway trains, Todd and I finally made our way up from midtown to the Fort Tyron station.  A block’s walk from the station, and we found ourselves in Riverside park, a diversion from the clamour of the city, dotted with daisies, roses, and other flowers tended by caregivers.  The walk through the park to the museum was pleasant, though neither short or mapped out.  We wound our way to the entrance of the museum and I was completely awestruck by the centuries-old feel of the fortification with walls nearly as thick as my arms are long.  Immediately I felt transported to another world that was fantastic and movie-like, compared to what my modern eyes usually see.

Opening every ancient wooden door leads to another wonder of the Church through the ages.

Opening every ancient wooden door leads to another wonder of the Church through the ages. The "Chapter Room" of this French cloister was where monks reviewed their secular duties each day and received news pertitent to community life.

Under Stone Arches  As a lifetime North American resident, the oldest man-made structures I’ve seen are probably “only” 400 years old, at most.  The Cloister Museum’s impressive collection houses rooms and pieces on the order of 1000 years old.

According to our very eclectic tour guide, most people hold the misconception that either the Cloister Museum is a former monastery or that it is the result of a mass move (no pun intended) of a European  monastery to the present location.  Actually, the Cloister Museum came to be when John D. Rockefeller acquired a collection of religious art and sculpture and offered to donate the pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, provided he could commission a whole new site to house these treasures.

The rooms, doorways, and pieces of churches appearing in the museum actually were all once part of five different French cloisters, as well as churches across Europe, featuring examples from the Romanesque and Gothic periods.  The tour guide discussed the difference between these two types of architecture: Roman arches and walls distributed weight rather evenly and couldn’t sustain many holes for walls, whereas Gothic design used a focused weight distribution allowing thinner walls and extravagant windows.


Personally, my favorite architectural feature at the Cloisters museum was the apse (curved part of the Church encompassing the altar) of the Church of San Martin in Fuentiduena built in the twelfth century.  Until recently, museum-goers were forbidden from walking in the apse area; now, people are permitted to walk up the one step into the apse.  We explored the dome decorated with a scene of Mary and Jesus, the body of Christ hanging on a Crucifix, and the symmetrical holes in the wall that kept us guessing at their purpose.

IMG_4141Cloister Gardens One of the most popular features at the Cloisters museum is the series of medieval-style gardens, each enclosed on four sides by walkways under vaulted stone ceilings.  The gardens aren’t there only for their lovely sights and scents: they contain flowers, herbs, and fruits true to the medieval era.  Many plants were the same kind used to derive pigments for coloring tapestries such as the Unicorn collection only steps away.  The tour guide was so thorough that she even pointed out the four Quince trees in one garden and explained the changing nature of fruit consumption in Western nations over the past few hundred years.


The moment before Mary gives her yes to God during the Annunciation.

Artwork The Cloister Museum was built not only as a bastion of Medieval architecture, but as backdrop for some of the most memorable paintings, sculptures, and woven art from the era.  Most depict the life of Christ and His apostles, the growing Church through the centuries, as well as how these themes coursed through Medieval society.  The Merode Altarpiece, an attention-grabbing triptych, was not used in a church setting, but rather was a small piece used for private devotion in a family’s home.  It depicts the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive a Son in her virginity and that her He would be the savior of the world.  According to our tour guide, religious paintings commissioned by individuals or families usually are telling about the owners and what was important to them at the time, rather than simply recounting an important religious event.  For instance, one may guess that the couple who owned the Merode piece was trying to conceive a child, and so looked to the Annuncation as a framework for their hopes and prayers.

IMG_4154As we continued walking through the chapels, I was stunned by gentle allure of the delicate beams of natural light radiating into the rooms.  Some trickled through tiny, high windows far above my head, casting a mysterious and ancient light on the space.  Others splashed through giant vaults filled with brightly-colored glass.  A chapel containing the long-forgotten sarcophagi of a monk, knight, and noblewoman was adorned with five tall stained glass windows which illustrated Catholic saints as well as events from the life of Christ.

Wooden sculpture was also a prominent form of artwork in the Cloisters Museum, giving form and flesh to bishops and saints.  I was particularly drawn to two wooden sculptures – one of Mary and one of Christ being taken down from the cross.  The Blessed Mother wore IMG_4114a red dress, showing her Earthly beginnings, and a cape of blue, denoting her queenly place beside her Son.  Her arms were broken from her, probably disfigured during the French Revolution or the 1st or 2nd World War.  Her face was so alluring to me, and I took many photos from different angles, appreciating her loving but bittersweet expression.  As I took my last photo of her, and peeked at the result on my camera’s screen, and I was amazed at the appearance of a tear just leaving her eye.  Although an illusion of shadows, to me this was a tender sign of the pain she bore as mother of our sacrificial Lord.

IMG_4166A sombre carved scene in another room showed us five female saints standing around the emaciated body of Jesus, mourning his death, sorrow pulsing through their wooden faces.  I tried my best to capture their grief with my camera, but my talent at photography is amateur, and the photos barely reverberate with the echo of the sculpture’s presence.


The donkey sculpture, however, delighted me – not so much because of its worthy artistic merit, or its reference to a religiously significant event, but rather because of its unusual structure.  As in the Gospels, Christ came into Jerusalem on a donkey the Sunday before he was executed.  This is referred to as Palm Sunday because the people present at His arrival threw palm leaves at the ground under the feet of the donkey to honor Jesus’ path.  This particular sculpture not only featured Jesus riding the donkey, but was placed atop a small, flat, wooden cart.  Todd informed me the meaning of this unusual setup: in its original setting, this sculpture would be toted around the aisles of the church on Palm Sunday, in order to recreate the coming of Christ into Jerusalem on a donkey.  I think it was a good idea to run things this way – dragging a statue on a real donkey would be extremely messy and hard to manage during the Holy Mass.

Although I saw many fine works of art and architecture during our trip to the Cloisters Museum, I don’t doubt that when I return to it someday, there will be plenty to see, learn, and appreciate time and time again.  Its treasures are brimming with opportunities for inquiry, history, and spiritual contemplation – all only a short ride from midtown Manhattan!



  1. It sounds like you had a wonderful time at the Cloisters, Christine! My favorite feature was the gardens ❤ 'Twas beautiful overall`

  2. Hmmmm, I submitted a comment but it didn’t show ;\ It sounds like you had a wonderful time at the Cloisters! The gardens were my favorite 😀

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