The Cloisters Museum and Gardens: Behind the Scenes with the Director

Museum Director Thomas P. Campbell explores the masterpieces, gardens, history, and architecture of The Cloisters Museum and Gardens with curator Peter Barnet.

Learn more about The Cloisters Museum and Gardens:

Thomas Campbell: Hello, I'm Tom Campbell, director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I'm standing in one of the most enchanted settings in Manhattan, one of the medieval gardens of The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum in northern Manhattan. I'm with Peter Barnet, curator in charge of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.

Peter, I feel as if I've stepped back in time. I could be in medieval Europe. What is the structure we're surrounded by?

Peter Barnet: Well, the founders of The Cloisters would be delighted to hear that, because that's exactly what they had in mind. We're standing in a cloister that comes from Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa in the Pyrenees. A cloister is the heart—

Thomas Campbell: Dating from when?

Peter Barnet: Well, dating from the first half of the twelfth century. A cloister is really at the heart of almost any monastery.

It's usually an open courtyard—square or rectangular—like the one from Cuxa that we're in now, surrounded by a covered walkway—usually an arcaded, covered walkway—on four sides.

Thomas Campbell: There's wonderful sculptures on the pillars.

Peter Barnet: Beautifully sculpted capitals that are typical of the twelfth-century Romanesque style. And The Cloisters Museum and Gardens really is devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe in the twelfth through the fifteenth century, essentially the Romanesque and the Gothic periods.

Thomas Campbell: And this is one of how many cloisters that form the nucleus of this?

Peter Barnet: Well, technically, there are parts of five cloisters that form The Cloisters. There are three of them that have very beautiful gardens, like the one here in Cuxa, and the gardens are developed with a very careful eye to plants that were grown in medieval Europe. This one—

Thomas Campbell: Here we're surrounded by the smell of lavender.

Peter Barnet: This is the most decorative garden, I would say, the most extravagant garden that we have, and downstairs in two of the other cloisters, there are gardens that are carefully organized around the function of plants in medieval art, in medieval cooking, in medieval medicine, and so forth. They're a little more academic. This one is really just here to be appreciated as a garden would be today.

Thomas Campbell: The perfect setting for a summer visit.

Peter Barnet: Wonderful. And The Cloisters also is built high on the Hudson River, looking across the river to New Jersey, and has wonderful views. The Cloisters is in Fort Tryon Park, the highest spot on the island of Manhattan.

Thomas Campbell: But it's not just views and gardens.

Peter Barnet: We're also surrounded by the finest works of medieval art belonging to the Metropolitan Museum. It's a great collection that actually rivals the collection in the main building of the Metropolitan Museum.

Thomas Campbell: Okay. Well, let's go into those galleries.

Peter Barnet: Great.

Thomas Campbell: So, we're only a stone's throw from the tower blocks of northern Manhattan and Harlem, but I feel somehow that we've stepped back in time, here. We're in the cool atmosphere of a medieval chapel, surrounded by architectural elements and works of art. It's not like any other museum gallery in America.

Peter Barnet: I think that's right, and it's not like any museum, really, in the world. This is a very rare museum devoted to the art of the Middle Ages, and the intention has always been to show great works of medieval art in a setting that conveyed the way these works of art were originally intended to be seen.

For example, in this gallery, which is called the Early Gothic Hall, the gallery is dominated by three thirteenth-century French limestone windows with great examples of stained glass—mostly French stained glass from the thirteenth and fourteenth century—with natural light that comes through the window, and actually, light bounces off the river, and changes with the clouds.

Thomas Campbell: And we get these beautiful light effects on the stones, as well.

Peter Barnet: —On the floor. And it gives you a sense of the liveliness of the stained glass that most museum settings can't convey.

Thomas Campbell: Quite enchanting. And then, color of a different kind—this sculpture next to us.

Peter Barnet: We're very fortunate to have great examples of sculpture, like this French sculpture here, this very large-scale one, which has much of its original polychrome, and other sculptures in this gallery—some in stone and others wood sculptures—show the way that medieval art was made and is intended to be seen, and that's often lost in museums today.

Thomas Campbell: Over here, I see a window looking down into another chapel with more very brightly colored stained glass and wonderful sculpture.

Peter Barnet: Well, looking through this very beautifully carved thirteenth-century window, we're looking into the Gothic Chapel, which has a very large group of fourteenth-century Austrian stained glass panels that are really unparalleled, and an extraordinary group of tomb sculptures. Around the walls are a group of tomb sculptures that come from Catalonia in a place called Urgell, and then two more tombs in the center of the gallery much as they would have been in a medieval funeral chapel.

Thomas Campbell: Now, I know that one of the most popular attractions for young and old alike is through here, the famous Unicorn Tapestries.

Now, The Cloisters are famous for their gardens in the summer, but this is a room in which the flowers never fade—the famous Unicorn Tapestries.

Peter Barnet: Certainly one of the great treasures of The Cloisters and one of the great treasures to survive from the Middle Ages anywhere, and probably the single thing that most people come to The Cloisters to see. And as you say, they're famous examples of what are known as mille-fleurs tapestries, or tapestries with backgrounds of a thousand flowers, so that it does convey the sense of blooming year round. We have a series of seven tapestries that are extraordinary survivals from the years right around 1500. They were probably designed in Paris and woven in northern France or the southern Netherlands, perhaps Brussels.

Thomas Campbell: The subject is the hunt of the unicorn, but with an underlying allegorical and symbolic meaning.

Peter Barnet: Exactly.

Thomas Campbell: Which we've never quite—around which there continues to be much debate.

Peter Barnet: There are many questions about these tapestries. The focus of the tapestries is the hunt of the unicorn, which is a mythical beast with this extraordinary single horn in its forehead, which in the Middle Ages was seen as the symbol of Christ, and there's a mystical aspect to the tapestries because of that.

Thomas Campbell: One of the great monuments of European tapestry production.

Peter Barnet: Absolutely.

Thomas Campbell: Well, let's walk on and look at some of the other works of art. Now, we've left the grandeur of The Cloisters and the chapel settings to enter a much more domestic-feeling space.

Peter Barnet: This is the Mérode room, which is devoted to this great triptych, the Mérode triptych, painted in Tournai in the early fifteenth century. And you're exactly right, this gallery is devoted to private devotion in the late Middle Ages. And that's a theme that is conveyed by this painting.

It's a fairly small-scale triptych, one of the great paintings to survive from this period in the southern Netherlands. And it's a revolutionary approach to the subject of the Annunciation. You see here, in this contemporary fifteenth-century interior from northern Europe, the Virgin seated on a bench reading a prayer while the angel Gabriel enters the room.

Thomas Campbell: In a domestic setting.

Peter Barnet: In a domestic setting. Up until this time, most Annunciation scenes were shown in churches. But here, because of this new movement, and the importance of private devotion in this period, when people in all walks of life were encouraged to think about the events of the Bible and the events in the life of Christ as contemporary events, and to imagine themselves witnessing the suffering of Christ, and so forth. The feeling was that works of art could help in this process—by bringing people into the scenes by creating domestic interiors.

Thomas Campbell: And it has an almost kind of hallucinatory clarity to it. There's such observation of the details.

Peter Barnet: It's the observation, and the quality of the painting is extraordinary, and the condition is incredible. It's one of the great pieces to survive from this period. It's almost untouched.

Thomas Campbell: And I love—I find particularly engaging the scene of Joseph in his workshop, using the kind of tools that presumably were used to make the furniture by which we're surrounded.

Peter Barnet: Exactly, and it is an extraordinarily finely-observed painting, and through the window you see a view of the city, a contemporary city with its church towers outside.

Thomas Campbell: Photorealism five hundred years before the concept was invented.

Peter Barnet: Absolutely. This was the early days of oil painting, which was kind of a new invention at this point.

Thomas Campbell: Absolutely wonderful. Where is our next stop?

Peter Barnet: Well, we'll go to the Late Gothic Hall, which is kind of the pendant to the Early Gothic Hall on the east side of the building.

Thomas Campbell:  I think of The Cloisters as being somewhere that is timeless, and yet, in fact, I sense as I walk into this room that there's been quite a lot of recent change. We have a tapestry that we haven't had hanging here before, amongst other things.

Peter Barnet: This gallery has undergone quite a lot of change, recently. This is known as the Late Gothic Hall, where we have mostly fifteenth-century sculptures, and this wonderful tapestry that came to us in 1938 from the Cathedral of Burgos, but had been damaged, at some point in its past, by being cut into four irregular pieces. And only recently, the museum's textile conservation laboratory was able to reweave those pieces back together.

Thomas Campbell: You can't even see the joints, can you?

Peter Barnet: It's extraordinary, and I think one thing that's important to keep in mind is that the four pieces that the tapestry had been cut into were in fact in quite good condition, but the cuts made it difficult to show, and difficult to appreciate. The damage is invisible, and we've been able to restore this to view in this gallery, the Late Gothic Hall, whose dominant feature are these four fifteenth-century limestone windows that come from the Dominican monastery in Sens, in Burgundy.

Thomas Campbell: And the other very striking feature of this gallery are the—that's the sculptures.

Peter Barnet: We have a great group of Late Gothic sculptures, many very large, and many with much of their original painted and gilded surface surviving. Most people don't realize that many of these late Gothic, wood sculptures were actually part of enormous, complicated, winged altarpieces, and when they find their way into museum collections many of them have been separated from those ensembles, but we try to at least approximate the great height that these sculptures would have been seen at when they were made for churches.

Thomas Campbell: Very striking and dramatic.

Now, here we've stepped back in time. We are in the Romanesque era.

Peter Barnet: Exactly, we're back in the twelfth century here, in the Romanesque Hall, which really typifies the galleries of The Cloisters—with large-scale elements, wonderful doorways like the Gothic doorway from Moutiers-Saint-Jean behind me, frescoes from northern Spain near Burgos, wonderful frescos of a dragon and a lion.

Thomas Campbell: In both a literal and a metaphorical way, this really is a window to the past, a triumph of imagination and achievement, and a jewel-like setting for some of the finest medieval works of art in the Metropolitan Museum's collection.

The Cloisters are open throughout the year in Fort Tryon Park in North Manhattan, and I hope you'll find time to visit them, whether in the summer, or in the fall, or the winter, or the spring. There are always flowers blooming here in one way or another. Thank you.

Producer and Director: Christopher Noey

Editor: Jessica Glass | Camera: Wayne De La Roche, Jessica Glass | Sound: David Raymond | Production Assistance: Kate Farrell, Sarah Cowan, Travis Kray

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