The Cloisters has always been one of my favorite museums. Its location, in lovely Fort Tryon Park overlooking the Hudson River to the Palisades is a delight, especially in Summer. The complex itself has a rather unusual history. Long story short – in the early 20th century, over several years, the sculptor George Gray Barnard acquired portions and fragments of four French medieval cloisters which he brought to Washington Heights, where he displayed them, beginning in 1914, in the first version of the museum. Some years later, John D. Rockefeller funded the acquisition of the collection by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rockefeller also acquired and built what is now Fort Tryon Park (which he donated to the City of New York), and financed the complex we now know as the Cloisters. He also donated items from his personal collection – can you believe he owned 6 of the Unicorn tapestries? For the full history, click here
I started by visiting the new exhibit, Treasures and Talismans, Rings from the Griffin Collection As its name implies, the heart of this exhibit are rings from the ancient, medieval and Renaissance periods.
You’ll find exquisite gold work and ingenious stone settings. All of the rings on display are made of gold; most of them have gems: lots of garnet, some sapphires, diamonds, pearls and amethysts.
Many are gold bands with inscriptions, including several signet rings and a few iconographic rings engraved with images of various saints. The display also contains some cameo rings, as well as pendants and brooches.
There’s a small selection of paintings, statues, boxes and metalwork from the Met’s collection that rounds out the exhibition.You can also find the medieval version of Snapchat: an ivory writing tablet with a compartment in the back containing a wax tablet on which a message could be inscribed; once it had been read, the receiver could wipe it off and write a new one.
I then wended my way through other parts of the Cloisters. In addition to re-visiting the Unicorn series, I took in other outstanding tapestries such as the “Nine Heros” and “The Falcon’s Bath” (check out the hats). Since I’m interested in embroidery, I also sought out the embroidered vestments, some in their entirety, others of which survived only as fragments, but they are superb.
There are magnificent painted and stained glass panels throughout the complex, as well as paintings, statues, carvings, liturgical vessels and devotional objects.
I would recommend that you also spend some time in each of the three gardens; not only do they make for a nice resting spot, but they also contain herbs used in medieval times for cooking, making pigments, medicine, and magic.
The buildings themselves have a lot to offer in their architectural detail. The Cuxa cloister especially has some great capitals on the columns of the arches.
There’s a lot to take in at the Cloisters; I’d say do it slowly, over a few visits.