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Medieval Art and The Cloisters

Medieval Art

The Middle Ages, the period between ancient and modern times in Western civilization, extends from the fourth to the early 16th century—that is, roughly from the Fall of Rome to the beginning of the Renaissance in Northern Europe. The Metropolitan Museum's collection of medieval art, one of the richest in the world, encompasses the art of this long and complex period in all its many phases, from its pre-Christian antecedents in western Europe through early medieval, the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic periods. The Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, established in 1933, oversees both the collection in the Museum's main building on Fifth Avenue and that of The Cloisters in northern Manhattan.

A gift from the financier and collector J. Pierpont Morgan in 1917 forms the core of the Museum's medieval collection, now more than 5,000 works strong. The collection has grown through purchases as well as through gifts and bequests, most notably those from George Blumenthal, Michael Friedsam, George and Frederic Pratt, and Irwin Untermyer. Among the particular strengths of the works shown in the main building, covering the breadth of the medieval period, are Early Christian tomb sculptures, a series of silver plates of the seventh century representing scenes of David, the Antioch Treasure, the Avar hoard, Byzantine ivory carvings and enamels, western medieval ivory carvings and sumptuous objects made of precious metals and gems between the ninth and the 16th century, and masterworks of sculpture and stained glass from such key monuments as the royal abbey of Saint-Denis, Notre-Dame in Paris, and the cathedral of Amiens. In 2000, the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries for Byzantine Art were created to house the Museum's superb collection of Byzantine and early medieval art. In 2008, a further renovation underwritten by the Jaharises will create an additional space for Byzantine art and a new gallery devoted to Medieval Europe to 1300.

The Cloisters, which has been described as "the crowning achievement of American museology" and which opened to the public in 1938, is the Metropolitan Museum's branch museum for medieval art in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan. Located in a spectacular four-acre setting overlooking the Hudson River, the building incorporates elements from five medieval cloisters—Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint- Guilhem-le-Désert, Bonnfont-en-Comminges, Trie-en-Bigorre, and Froville—and from other monastic sites located in France. Also included are architectural elements from secular contexts. Both categories of works were arranged so as to suggest their original functions. The modern museum building is not a copy of any specific medieval structure but an ensemble of spaces, rooms, and gardens that suggest a variety of artistic aspects of medieval Europe.

Much of the sculpture at The Cloisters was acquired by George Grey Barnard (1863-1938), who was a prominent American sculptor and an avid collector 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., the collection was acquired by the Museum in 1925. In addition to providing the grounds and building for the Barnard collection, Rockefeller contributed works of art from his own collection and established an endowment for operations and future acquisitions. The new museum was designed by Charles Collens, the architect of Riverside Church in New York City, in a composite yet informed medieval style and incorporating elements from Barnard's museum as well as the Rockefeller works. The collection at The Cloisters continues to grow, thanks to Rockefeller's endowment and other significant gifts.

Dedicated to the art of the Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque, and Gothic periods, The Cloisters is particularly known for its architectural sculpture. The collection of more than 5,000 pieces also includes, however, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, enamels, ivories, and paintings. Among its masterpieces are the renowned Unicorn Tapestries, a series of seven South Netherlandish tapestries woven around 1500 that represent the hunt of the unicorn. Other masterpieces housed at The Cloisters include an early 15th-century French illuminated Book of Hours, The Belles Heures de Jean, Duc de Berry; the richly carved 12th-century ivory cross attributed to the English abbey of Bury Saint Edmunds; the stone Virgin of the mid-13th century from the choir screen of Strasbourg Cathedral; and the so-called Merode Triptych, representing the Annunciation, by the 15th-century Netherlandish master Robert Campin. Major renovations over the past decade have included the installation of a new state-of-the art climate control system, the creation of The Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation at The Cloisters, the construction of a new skylight and lighting for the St.-Guilhem Cloister, the installation of a dozen architectural elements from the medieval monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, refurbished stonework and a new installation of stained glass in the Early Gothic Hall, and thorough renovation and reinstallation of art in the Boppard Gallery and the Campin Room.


July 16, 2008

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