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The Met Cloisters: An Art Sanctuary

Published on
April 20

There are some museums that are housed in amazing buildings and there are others that house amazing works of art. What a pleasure to immerse yourself in a space that offers both like the Met Cloisters. Located on the northern tip of Manhattan, your MetroCard will get you there in just a few minutes but while you’re there you feel miles away from the city.

If you’re there on a nice day, take your time to meander through Fort Tryon Park. You can follow signs for the Met Cloisters to stay on the paved paths, or look for the Alpine Garden to take the trail less traveled. The Alpine Garden provides a steeper, more idyllic climb up hidden stone steps surrounded by plants typical of rocky terrain. Whichever path you choose, just keeping going up, when you see the building that looks like a castle, you’ve arrived.



The building itself is the first work of art worth a closer look. Take a stroll around it and see if you can spot which elements are actual stone from European monasteries and which were added to piece them together. Look just past the building for a prime view of the Hudson and the Palisades across the river in New Jersey. Once you step inside, the multi-level floors, curving stone staircases, and naturally lit corridors are a bit of a labyrinth, but there isn’t a more enjoyable place in the city to get lost. Have I mentioned the artwork yet?

The highlights of the permanent collection are the three T’s: Tombs, Treasury, and Tapestries. Stone coffins of clerics, knights, and noblemen have their own room in this museum, sculpted with the likeness of their inhabitants. If you make the pilgrimage within the next few months, you will see the work of the museum’s conservation team as they restore certain tombs, revealing the color that was once so brilliant and analyzing the stone. Tucked away on the lower level is the Treasury. This section of the museum houses some of the most delicate, wonderfully ornate items prized by the period’s well-to-do (read: mostly royalty or religiously affiliated). Vessels and relics, robes and jewelry — the objects are small but their beauty is immense. But perhaps most well known is the museum’s collection of tapestries, specifically the series on the Unicorn Hunt donated by the Rockefellers. These massive tapestries take up entire walls and are a marvel for their sheer craftsmanship, to say nothing of the whimsical floral patterns or overall narrative.      

In addition to the Cloisters’ extensive permanent collection, Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures, the current exhibition, will definitely make you want to lean in for a closer look. Carved with painstaking care in the Netherlands during the sixteenth century, these small orbs have only recently revealed the secret of their construction to scholars. Layers of intricately carved boxwood come together in such minute detail you can spend as much time taking in the figures and inscriptions on these as you would any of the larger paintings in the collection. The artists seem to revel in hiding smaller and smaller gems among the iconic biblical scenes: a dog under the table, soldiers with distinct spears, workmen in the background. Perhaps I’m betraying my propensity for the theatrical, but imagining opening these treasures, unfolding the flaps some of them contain (with even more detailed carving!) feels like a curtain going up on a fully realized, tiny universe.


                                                                            

Early 16th c. Netherlandish. Boxwood. Open: 4 7/16 x 3 3/16 x 11/16in. Closed: 2 5/16 x 2 3/16 x 2 3/16in. Sculpture-Miniature-wood. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan. 1917. 17.190.475.

 

If your eyes get tired, step outside and enjoy the garden, which is organized according to how the plants might have been used: culinary, medicinal, arts, or witchcraft. There’s also a small café around the corner if you need to recharge. When you step back inside, don’t miss the video display that zooms in on certain elements from the exhibition. The more elaborate specimens (including Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon’s rosary) go beyond the single spherical shape to include triptychs, personalized letters, even skulls and coffins, all of which open to reveal their small wonders. In our world of computer-controlled laser cut models, it is truly humbling to think about the amount of time it took to carve these masterpieces with such simple tools. Intended to inspire devotion, it is clear the devotion starts with the creator.  

At the Met Cloisters, everything is art. From the walls, to the wooden doors, to the roundels in the windows, you are immersed in a time and place refreshingly different from our own. Whether you prefer the dark, quiet interior or the sun-drenched courtyard where the birds are chirping, there is an art sanctuary waiting for you.


(c) Meinzahn | Dreamstime.com