The Cloisters is “the crowning achievement of American museology.” ~ Germain Bazin, former director of the Musée du Louvre in Paris.
Considerable effort goes into piecing a puzzle together. Yet the challenge for architect Charles Collens was far greater, especially since some of his pieces were missing. Not only that, but his task called for combining five incomplete sets and assembling them into one. The result of this feat was realized in 1938 upon completion of the structure; one that wouldn’t look out of place in the Middle Ages.
Collens was the visionary behind The Cloisters – a museum and gardens designed around the architectural elements of five French monasteries dating back to the twelfth through fifteenth century. Loosely based on prototypes presented by medieval monasteries, this is the nation’s largest museum dedicated to medieval art.
Prior to being commissioned by John D. Rockefeller for its conception, Collens noted:
… whoever does that building would have to work out all the individual exhibits in such a way as to place them to the greatest advantage and given them one setting which would minimize the fact that it was an exhibit, but a part of a composition and naturally fitted into that particular spot best adapted to the conditions under which it existed in its original state.
Clearly, he was the right man for the job. The Cloisters, a culmination of Romanesque and Gothic style elements from southern France, displays authenticism if not purely for its artistic detail and design, but also for the integration of the horticultural elements of the time. Think: a seamless flow from Cloister, to Garden, to Chapel, to another Cloister.
From the Museum’s inception, the curators envisioned the artwork and gardens as a whole, where the plants were not merely aesthetic elements, but also of great educational value. ~ Christina Alphonso, The Cloisters
Located in Fort Tryon Park, this extension of the Met Museum sits atop a hill, in keeping with the medieval precedent. Remember those unobstructed views of the New Jersey Palisades from Fort Tryon Park provided by Rockefeller? The can also be enjoyed higher up, from the museum’s terraces.
Medieval monks often built themselves walled compounds on mountaintops, the better to keep their vows of retreat from the world.
The Cloisters museum’s beginnings stem from an acquisition made in 1925: Rockefeller purchased a collection of architectural elements and sculptures from dealer and American sculptor George G. Bernard. Having spent time in France, Bernard sold sculptural fragments he found in the countryside or bought cheap from local dealers, then architectural elements, including complete portals and cloisters. In 1913 the French government passed a law restricting the export of “cultural heritage.” Two days before the law took effect, Barnard sent containers of his collection to New York. 
According to the Centre County Historical Society, “These unique pieces of Medieval and Renaissance art from France sparked an interest in Americans, and as a result, study and collecting of this period increased significantly.”
Rockefeller subsequently donated his acquisition to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, though the problem of space necessitated the construction of a building to house the artifacts. Enter architect Charles Collens. In harmony with Collens’ design, curators Joseph Breck (Assistant Director at the Met), and James Rorimer (Curator of Medieval Art) created in the galleries a clear and logical flow from the Romanesque (ca. 1000-ca. 1150) through the Gothic period (ca. 1150-1520).
Today, these artifacts form the core of the collection displayed in The Cloisters. They are accompanied by gifted artworks from Rockefeller, whose endowment in 1952 made further acquisitions possible, such as the Unicorn tapestries and Pontaut monastic Chapter House.
So named The Cloisters for the five French monasteries, each forms part of the museum’s framework and occupies a unique position in the building.
CLOISTER, Defined: The cloister is the heart of the monastery. It consists of a covered walkway surrounding a large square or rectangular open-air courtyard, with access to all other monastic buildings. Usually attached to the church, a cloister was at the same time passageway and processional walkway, a place for meditation and for reading aloud. A garden with a water source was usually located within the cloister. At once serene and bustling, the cloister was also the site where monks washed their clothes and themselves.
Note: The Cloisters is a designated ‘Quiet Zone’ and there are no monks bathing in the courtyards.
Enjoy the tour!
The museum is recognised by its four-story tower that greets you upon arrival. Modeled after the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa in the Pyrenees, you may have noticed this square turret from many vantage points in Fort Tryon Park.
Cloister One: Benedictine priory of Froville
NB: This walkway features the characteristic Cloister arcade though no courtyard.
You’ll enter through a set of wooden arched doors with cast iron detailing, and into the Froville arcade. Look out through one of its nine pointed arches, sans window panes – these were originally part of the 15th C priory. Notice the giant holly tree directly outside.
Holly, native to most parts of south and central Europe, was credited by the Roman natural historian Pliny with the power to protect and defend against witchcraft, lightning, and poison.
Cloister Two: Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa
NB: The elements are from the mid-12th Century and whilst the cloister is proportionately the same, it is roughly a quarter of the size of the original, located in the Pyrenees. Yes, a part of the Cloister survives at the monastery and is home to a community of monks.
This is the heart of the museum; you basically have it to yourself. The cloister consists of an open-air courtyard, encircled with a covered walkway supported by original columns of native pink marble, carved with plant and animal motifs. In these cooler months, their open arcades are glazed with glass; the terracotta potted bitter orange, rosemary, and bay laurel plants are brought in from the outside. Jasmine, fig, and even lavender are hardier and stay put in the ornamental garden, along with planted and pruned crab apple trees.
There is evidence that tender plants were grown in pots and brought into shelter in northern Europe, and Albertus Magnus, the great thirteenth-century philosopher and natural scientist, is said to have astonished visitors to his cloister in Cologne, where flowers and fruits flourished in January.
Enjoy the last of the seasonal adaptation: notice the citrus trees adorned with oranges and tiny lavender bushes lining the interior pathways; take in the scent of thyme and rosemary.
In the mid afternoon sun, the shadows of pillars and archways decorate the passageways. There are benches available should you like to take a seat and admire the first of the blooming daffodils.
The common daffodil, Narcissus pseudo-narcissus, often appears in medieval art; the form is readily recognizable, even when stylized. It is the only trumpet-flowered narcissus species known to the Middle Ages, and both the cup and the petals that form the corolla are yellow.
Cloister Three: Benedictine abbey of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert
NB: this abbey became an important site on one of the pilgrimage roads that ran through France to the holy shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
You’ll enter a smaller courtyard – its walkway windows look out onto the Hudson River; a skylight provides natural illumination and potted palms provide a dash of green.
Look, don’t touch… Impressive are the double columns, decorated by use of drilling techniques and deep undercutting. Note the Romanesque palm, figurine, blossom, and acanthus leaf motifs all around – spiny and decorative foliage – as well as pillars of undulating forms. In the centre of the cloister stands a fountain; immaculately carved, it dates back to the 11th Century and comes from Auvergne or Buyenne region of France.
A plant of ancient cultivation, grown for some five thousand years and with an equally long presence in art and architecture, the date palm was and is both economically and symbolically important. Date palms have provided an important food, intoxicating liquor, a sweetener, and a building material.
Damaged during the French Revolution, there are no details as to the abbey’s original size and look. The columns and shafts are original, and a portion of the cloister remains at its former site in Montpellier.
Cloister Four: Cistercian abbey of Bonnefort-en-Comminges
NB: Long thought to be part of the Bonnefort abbey, the elements instead come from other monasteries in the region including Tarbes.
You’ll immediately notice the benches that line the northern wall of this cloister; a welcome respite and an opportunity to catch some of those warm afternoon rays. This is the only cloister visible from building’s exterior; the views from here look onto the Hudson River and Fort Tryon Park. The twenty-one twin columns that support the arched walkway are comparable to the cloisters located in the Toulouse area.
The beloved and beautiful quartet of quince (Cydonia oblonga) trees at the center of Bonnefont garden is an iconic image of The Cloisters worldwide. ~ Fran Reid, consulting arborist to The Cloisters
Admire the pillars, decorated with foliage motifs; they complement the courtyard’s medieval garden – the main teaching garden, home to the greater part of the medieval plant collection.
The layout of the Bonnefort Cloister garden approximates that of a medieval herb garden, with raised beds bordered by bricks and wattles fences. Grouped and labeled according to their medieval usage – magic, household, medicinal, culinary, textile dyeing, manuscript painting – all of the plants grown in the garden are species (over 250 of them) documented in medieval sources.
Plants and herbs used to ward off spirits and other superstitions!
“Wine and wine grapes were of great economic and symbolic importance in the Middle Ages. Vineyards were associated both with royal and noble estates and with monasteries. There was once a trellised Concord grapevine on the west wall of the garden, but the younger of two espaliered pears now grows in that spot.
The espaliered pear is one of the most beloved trees at The Cloisters, and has graced Bonnefont garden for more than sixty years. This method of training fruit trees against a wall is a Renaissance development, rather than a medieval technique. The heat and light that radiate from the wall help to ripen the fruit.”
Cloister Five: Carmelite convent at Trie-en-Baise
NB: During the warmer months, this area would be ideal to sit in whilst sipping on a coffee. Unfortunately, March still qualifies as the off-season; the café is closed.
From Bonnefort, walk through to this adjoining cloister. Terracotta tiles, peaked arches, and columns were salvaged from the Carmelite convent; the cloister, as it appears here, wouldn’t look out of place in Tuscany or rural Spain. You’ll notice religious scenes and coats of arms – attributed to families in the area of the convent – carved into its stone walls and pillars.
The medieval garden, planted as a single field of herbs and flowers, evokes the background art of the Unicorn tapestries.
… the cloister formed a continuous and solid architectural barrier… “that effectively separates the world of the monks from that of the serfs and workmen, whose lives and works went on outside and around the cloister.
Join me on the final leg of this tour, when I uncover the other parts of The Cloisters – those Unicorn tapestries, the Treasury, the Chapels, and some stained glass windows – in Part 3.