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The Met Cloisters in NYC’s Fort Tryon Park

By Taylor Smith 

Step back in time to Medieval Europe while remaining in Manhattan? Yes, it’s possible. Just plan a trip to The Met Cloisters in Washington Heights’ Fort Tryon Park. North of the Bronx, The Cloisters is perched on a very high overlooking the neighborhood of Inwood and offering sweeping views of New Jersey’s Palisades, specifically the cliffs of Fort Lee and Englewood. 

The museum opened to the public in 1938, and while a popular destination for those who know, there is still dramatically less foot traffic that The Metropolitan Museum of Art at 1000 Fifth Avenue. Open seven day a week, The Cloisters is free to Met members and New York residents, with a donation of some sort suggested. 

Architecturally speaking, The Cloisters does not represent one specific medieval abbey, but is an amalgamation of elements of medieval cloisters from around France. The four-acre layout contains relics from medieval structures from all over the Mediterranean (primarily Italy, Spain, and France), along with religious artwork from Germany. 

Monuments to French kings, proponents of early Christianity in a divided medieval Europe, are positioned within the hallways. Viewers will be struck by their vacant gaze, so well preserved for centuries in limestone. Many of the Germanic religious sculptures are actually fashioned out of wood from willow trees and then painted in expensive gold leaf, which is faintly detectable, even today. 

The museum feels cavernous and somewhat dark, many of the windows drawing upon the high, narrow medieval model. Light work plays a special role in both the stained-glass windows and tapestry rooms. The tapestries are huge artworks, each of them occupying almost an entire wall. Much of the subject matter is centered around unicorns, majestic beings shown captured or hunted down for their associations with divinity (some suggest the unicorn is a symbol of Christ, and thus the hunt for the unicorn is analogous to the Passion of the Christ). 

The series of seven tapestries were designed in France at the turn of the 16th century, but most likely woven in Brussels, an important center for linens and weaving in medieval Europe. Created of wool, metallic threads, and silk, the colors are still unusually vibrant, the dyes all being naturally derived from plants like woad (blue) and madder (red). 

Monastic gardens are situated within the center of the museum. Mediterranean plants like palms, lemon, olive, and sweet orange trees heavy with natural fragrance scent the walkways, creating a very meditative space. It is quite common to see visitors sitting on a stone bench within the gardens with a sketchbook. 

Approximately 2,000 works of art from the 12th through 16th centuries are housed within the walls of The Met Cloisters. These manuscripts, ivories, tapestries, enamels, metalwork, and stained glass works were all collected by a single man, George Grey Barnard. Barnard was a prominent collector and dealer of medieval art, and opened the original Cloisters on Fort Washington Avenue to the public in 1914. John D. Rockefeller was so impressed by the collection that The Metropolitan Museum of Art sought to acquire Barnard’s collection in 1925. Barnard’s collection was found to be so vast that The Met felt that a stand-alone museum would best display the entirety of the works. Rockefeller had recently financed the conversion of 56 acres in northern Manhattan (which became Fort Tryon Park), and it was decided that this would be the setting for The Met Cloisters. 

Additionally, in 1933, Rockefeller donated over 700 acres of the Northern New Jersey cliffs and shoreline side of the Palisades to better preserve the potential views for the new museum and museum visitors. The Unicorn Tapestries, owned by Rockefeller along with an endowment for the acquisition of future works of art, were the businessman’s final contribution. 

To plan your trip to The Met Cloisters, visit https://www.metmuseum.org/visit/plan-your-visit/met-cloisters.

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