Though the island of Manhattan was bought for beads, there are now nearly 72,000 residents per square mile and real estate is among the most expensive in the world.
It is fortunate for us, then, that early in the 20th Century, John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought approximately 66 acres at the north end of Manhattan, which he developed into Fort Tryon Park and gave to the city the very same year a storm felled Inwood’s tulip tree. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was later bequeathed four acres at the park’s highest point, and the Cloisters were built on those four acres as a house for the Met’s extensive medieval art collection.
In the vernacular of architecture, a cloister is a covered walk or open arcade running along a wall. Typically cloisters were built along the four inside walls of a courtyard, creating a quadrangle. The Cloisters of Fort Tryon were built from the stones of no less than five European abbeys between the years of 1934 and 1939. At certain points, the stone and the style of one abbey can be seen morphing into those of another. These are the tangible seams of intersecting times and places.
When I first visited it was autumn and the hardwoods were on fire or in gilt, the Hudson dark and cold, the Palisades on the far shore pale in the sun. It was a seam between seasons, and the Cloisters seems, on days like that, so massive and still and made to outlast – nothing more than the soul of the Middle Ages rooted on the rock of this otherwise changeable little island with its millions.
As it always is in museums, patrons circulate through the inside rooms in a slow drift. Some are clearly intent on examining the artifacts. Some are no doubt bored. Others, like myself, are likely more interested in soaking up the calm.
Monks have of course never lived in the Cloisters, but it takes no great leap to imagine them tending the fruit trees in the quadrangles, sweeping the stone pathways, feeding the birds and making their books.
In some spaces arched windows allow beams of sunlight to brighten iconography and armor. Other rooms, other wonders: illuminated manuscripts and scrolls in glass cases, a Bishop’s staff of ivory and gold, portraits of saints, bible stands of ancient unknown wood.
The famous Unicorn Tapestries hang in a windowless room to protect them from fading. Each panel tells us a piece of the story of the hunt for a unicorn. These tapestries, seven in all, are valued as some of the most beautiful and complex pieces of art to survive the late Middle Ages. In the gift shop one can buy them as magnets.
I have one with me now.