Opinions on The Cloisters – that branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art all the way up North near 190 Street, so out of the way that I doubt casual visitors to NYC ever reach it – are divided. I’ve heard lavish praise – and I have heard the European-born naysayers who question the point of visiting what is essentially a complex built in the 1930s pretending to be medieval monasteries. What the latter category doesn’t seem to know is that The Cloisters is actually assembled from architectural elements that largely date from the twelfth through the fifteenth century – 5 different original monasteries in total, and has a rather impressive collection of original art objects – the most notable of which being the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries. It’s also very pleasantly situated, especially if you take the meandering path through the park with the view of the Hudson river to the side, and fragrant, colourful blooms on the other. It all conspires to make you realize that this is not NYC as you know it.
The Cloisters should not work but it does. There’s obvious excess – all the arches and doors for one thing are naturally more than an actually monastery would have or need. There’s also an abundance of art pieces – from illuminated books, to tapestries, paintings, sculptures, church treasures and stained glass – if you can think of it in conjunction with medieval sacred places, they’ve got it. Very much in the manner of the British going off and returning with cultural loot from all over the empire, the Americans bring all that is typical of the 12th to 15th century period in Europe back home, mix, stir, and add a twist of lemon. Yet The Cloisters, as the MET – I would argue, not coincidentally – does something very well: it creates spaces that give the sense of a fundamental reality, despite (or perhaps because of) the jumbled array of pieces juxtaposed and mixed within.
It is a lovely place no matter how you look at it – although it does get rather crowded in the afternoon. I recommend the Garden Tour which is about plants in medieval times; apart from seeing the actual quaint little garden, the energetic guide imparts a wealth of information on everything from the language of flowers to what monks really cared about. Or something like that.