It’s rare to find an oasis of calm in frenetic New York City. The lights of Broadway, the zooming taxis, and the throngs of people all suggest what New York is: a bustling, modern metropolis. Even lush Central Park is abuzz with skaters, Frisbee tossers, and the odd car crossing from east to west.
But not far north, and surprisingly still part of Manhattan, is a zone of peace and quiet from the Middle Ages – The Cloisters.
Though constructed in the 1930s, on land donated by John D. Rockefeller, the museum was designed to closely resemble five medieval Cloisters. Most of the structures and collections center around two broad periods, the Romanesque (roughly from 1100-1150AD) and the Gothic (approx. 1150-1520AD).
The facility is owned and managed as a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (at Fifth Ave and 82nd St), but geographically, artistically, and in setting it is worlds away.
One chapel shows the distinctive style of the Romanesque with its broad barrel vault ceilings and simplified paintings and sculpture. Here, the early Christian fresco (wall painting on wet plaster) dominates the apse, where Mary is depicted flanked by winged figures Michael and Gabriel.
The adjacent Chapter House (from Notre-Dame-de-Pontaut) is in a transitional style, showing the influence of both Romanesque and Gothic touches. Thick walls and small windows characteristic of Romanesque architecture form part of the structure, while the vaulted ceiling shows clear Gothic construction.
Chapter houses were important meeting places for monastic business and entering the structure one can easily picture being part of the discussion.
The Gothic Chapel completes the transition, displaying wide, stained-glass windows, a rib-vaulted ceiling, and ample floor space. Here again, the visitor is immediately enveloped in an atmosphere that takes one away from the busy city and back to the slow, quiet medieval period.
The exteriors and grounds are consistent with that peaceful aura with large expanses of grass, an herb garden, and a general serenity not found in other parts of Manhattan. The views of the upper Hudson River contribute to the sense of being transported back in time to a pre-technological era.
But without question, the highlights of the museum are its many artifacts of the period. Whether considering the famous Book of Hours or the even more famous Unicorn Tapestries the artwork (also funded by Rockefeller) is among the best anywhere.
The tapestries are a series of seven wool and silk weaves depicting the storied Hunt of the Unicorn. In the hangings, one sees the many religious allegories that formed such a central part of medieval life.
There are many other pieces in the collection though. In the Spanish Room, is located the three-paneled, 15th-century Altarpiece of the Annunciation. And there are several elaborately illustrated manuscripts from the period. The three rooms of the Treasury contain several works from the 12th through the 15th centuries that are also worth a look.
The Cloisters is located at 190th Street in upper Manhattan and is easily accessible via express bus or the ‘A’ subway train.