The Cloisters is the branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated exclusively to medieval art, the art of the Middle Ages. Once described as “The crowning achievement of American Museums,”* it is located on four acres in northern Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park. The building incorporates elements from five medieval French “cloisters” – courtyards enclosed by a roofed passageway.
Our docent and art historian, Berfu, was clearly a medieval scholar. She shared much information with us. The museum boasts more than 11,000 medieval works of art, such as tapestries, sculpture, stained-glass windows, illuminated manuscripts, metalwork, enamels and ivories, dating from about A.D. 800. Even the gardens are planted according to medieval instructions.
The spaces, galleries, and gardens provide an inviting place for rest, contemplation, and conversation. As one of our Greeters described it, “The magnificent view overlooking the Hudson River and New Jersey, made me feel as if I was a million miles away from the city.”
Much of the sculpture at The Cloisters was acquired by George Grey Barnard (1863–1938), an American collector of medieval art. While working in rural France, Barnard boosted his income by selling medieval sculpture and architectural fragments. He kept many pieces for himself and, upon returning to the United States, opened a churchlike brick structure on Fort Washington Avenue filled with his collection—the first installation of medieval art of its kind in America.
Philanthropist and collector John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874–1960), acquired Barnard’s Museum in 1925. By 1927, it was clear that a larger building would be needed to display the collection. In addition to financing the conversion of 66.5 acres of land where the new museum would be located, Rockefeller contributed medieval works of art from his own collection.
The new museum’s architect was Charles Collens (1873–1956), architect of Manhattan’s Riverside Church. He simplified and incorporated the elements salvaged by Barnard and The Cloisters was formally dedicated on May 10, 1938.
In May 2001, an Audio Guide and café were introduced at The Cloisters. Now it is not only a feast for the eyes, but the ears and the appetite as well. To learn about tours, go to www.metmuseum.org/visit/met-cloister
*Germain Bazin, former director of the Musée du Louvre in Paris