The Cloisters museum and gardens, which opened to the public in 1938, is the branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan, on a spectacular four-acre lot overlooking the Hudson River, the modern museum building is not a copy of any specific medieval structure but is rather an ensemble informed by a selection of historical precedents, with a deliberate combination of ecclesiastical and secular spaces arranged in chronological order. Elements from medieval cloisters—Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Trie-sur-Baïse, Froville, and elements once thought to have come from Bonnefont-en-Comminges—and from other sites in Europe have been incorporated into the fabric of the building.
This 1941 silent video features footage of The Cloisters being constructed.
Three of the reconstructed cloisters feature gardens planted according to horticultural information found in medieval treatises and poetry, garden documents and herbals, and medieval works of art such as tapestries, stained-glass windows, and column capitals. Approximately two thousand works of art from medieval Europe, largely dating from the twelfth through the fifteenth century and including exquisite illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, enamels, ivories, and tapestries, are exhibited in this unique context.
Much of the sculpture at The Cloisters was acquired by George Grey Barnard (1863–1938), a prominent American sculptor, and an avid collector and dealer of medieval art. Barnard opened his original Cloisters on Fort Washington Avenue to the public in 1914. Through the generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874–1960), the Museum acquired Barnard's Cloisters and most of its contents in 1925. Early on, it was clear that a new, larger building would be needed to display the collection in a more scholarly fashion. Rockefeller donated to New York City, and financed the conversion of, some 56 acres of land just north of Barnard's museum, which became Fort Tryon Park—approximately 4 acres of which was destined as the site for the new museum. Following J. Pierpont Morgan's purchase of 12 miles of the New Jersey Palisades in 1901 to preserve the cliffs and shoreline from excessive quarrying, Rockefeller in 1933 donated some 700 additional acres of the Palisades' plateau to preserve the view from The Cloisters. In addition to providing the grounds and building to house the Barnard collection, Rockefeller contributed works of art from his own collection—including the celebrated Unicorn Tapestries—and established an endowment for operations and future acquisitions.
The new Cloisters museum building was designed by Charles Collens (1873–1956) who, together with Henry C. Pelton, designed the Riverside Church in New York City. Joseph Breck (1885–1933), a curator of decorative arts and assistant director of the Metropolitan Museum, and James J. Rorimer (1905–1966), who would later be named the Museum's director, were primarily responsible for overseeing the building's design and construction. Balancing Collens's interpretation with strict attention to historical accuracy, Breck and Rorimer created in the galleries a clear and logical flow from the Romanesque (ca. 1000–ca. 1150) through the Gothic period (ca. 1150–1520). The Cloisters opened to the public on May 10, 1938. In 1958, the twelfth-century limestone apse from the church in Fuentidueña, Spain, arrived to become part of the structure. The Treasury, which contains objects created for liturgical celebrations, personal devotions, and secular uses, was renovated in 1988. Major improvement to the infrastructure, climatization, and gallery spaces has continued to this day, including a new skylight in the St-Guilhem Cloister, a new objects conservation lab, the preservation of limestone windows in the Early Gothic and Late Gothic Halls, and many others.
The collection at The Cloisters continues to grow, thanks to Rockefeller's endowment and other significant gifts. Among its masterpieces are an early fifteenth-century French illuminated book of hours, The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry; a richly carved, twelfth-century ivory cross attributed by some to the English abbey of Bury Saint Edmunds; stained-glass windows from the castle chapel at Ebreichsdorf, Austria; a stone Virgin of the mid-thirteenth century from the choir screen of Strasbourg Cathedral in France; and the Merode Triptych, representing the Annunciation, by the workshop of the fifteenth-century Netherlandish master Robert Campin.
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