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Opened in 1938 as a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Met Cloisters is America’s only museum dedicated exclusively to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages. Including a museum and gardens within a single complex, it picturesquely overlooks the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan and derives its name from the portions of five medieval cloisters incorporated into a modern museum structure. Not replicating any one particular medieval building type or setting, but rather designed to evoke the architecture of the later Middle Ages, The Met Cloisters creates an integrated and harmonious context in which visitors can experience the rich tradition of medieval artistic production, including metalwork, painting, sculpture, and textiles. By definition, a cloister consists of a covered walkway surrounding a large open courtyard that provides access to other monastic buildings. Similarly, the museum’s cloisters act as passageways to galleries; they provide as inviting a place for rest and contemplation for visitors as they often did in their original monastic settings.
Any history of The Met Cloisters must begin with George Grey Barnard (1863–1938). A student of Rodin, Barnard was a prominent American sculptor. While working in rural France, Barnard supplemented his income by locating and selling medieval sculpture and architectural fragments that had made their way into the hands of local landowners over several centuries of political and religious upheaval. A romantic figure, Barnard viewed himself as a modern-day adventurer embellishing the stories of his many finds with tall tales of discovery.
Barnard moved back to the United States on the eve of World War I and, at the northern tip of Manhattan, opened a museum housing his own collection of medieval art. His passionate aim was to enable Americans to see and learn about art from the Middle Ages, and especially for young American sculptors to be inspired by what he called “the patient Gothic chisel.” He called his installation George Grey Barnard’s Cloisters, but his churchlike brick structure did little to present the collection of architectural fragments and works of art in a historically correct context. Rather, it expressed the collector’s poetic and very personal interpretation of the Middle Ages. It was, however, a path-breaking and influential installation, for it represented the first display of its kind of medieval art in America.
When Barnard’s Cloisters was offered for sale in 1924, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874–1960) provided funds that enabled The Met to purchase the museum and its collections. Rockefeller also presented The Met with more than 40 of his own medieval works of art. Rockefeller, like many of his contemporaries, possessed a fascination with the past. The expert artistry of medieval art as well as its innate spirituality strongly appealed to this philanthropist and collector.
By 1927, The Met decided a larger building was needed for its branch museum—one that would exhibit its collection in a more scholarly fashion. With visionary foresight, Rockefeller offered to finance the conversion of 66.5 acres of land just north of Barnard’s museum into a public park, today’s Fort Tryon Park, with a new Cloisters as its centerpiece. To ensure the beauty of this setting, Rockefeller donated additional land to the state of New Jersey to be incorporated into the Palisades park on the opposite bank of the Hudson River.
The three men who, together with Rockefeller, gave shape to the present museum were Charles Collens (1873–1956), Joseph Breck (1885–1933), and James Rorimer (1905–1966). Guided by Barnard’s pioneering first example, they brought a new level of scholarship and expertise to the project. Collens, one of the leading practitioners of the Neo-Gothic style and best known for his design of Manhattan’s Riverside Church, was chosen as the architect. Eschewing a slavish replication of an actual medieval structure, Collens produced a building that speaks of the Middle Ages through its paraphrasing of medieval proportions and styles. Breck, a curator of decorative arts as well as assistant director of The Met, was primarily responsible for the museum’s interior. Balancing Collens’ interpretation with strict attention to historical accuracy, Breck created in the galleries a clear and logical flow from the Romanesque (ca. 1000–1150/1200) through the Gothic periods (ca. 1150–1520). Involved in the project early on, Rorimer replaced Breck after the latter’s sudden death in 1933. With curatorial genius and adroit negotiating skills, Rorimer worked hand in hand with Rockefeller and took the museum through its final stages of construction. While works from Barnard’s Cloisters, together with gifts donated by Rockefeller such as the renowned set of tapestries depicting the hunt of the unicorn, remain at the heart of The Met Cloisters, the museum continues to expand its collection of medieval art—both in diversity and in scope. Highlights of the collection include Robert Campin’s Annunciation Triptych (also known as the Mérode Altarpiece); the tiny prayer book once owned by the queen of France, the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux; Austrian stained-glass windows from the castle chapel at Ebreichsdorf; and remarkable works in sculpture, such as the Cloisters Ivory Cross, and the late-13th-century head from the region of Strasbourg on the upper Rhine. These works testify to the continued vitality of the Museum’s commitment to expanding understanding of medieval art. The Met Cloisters is also renowned for its three cloister gardens—the Judy Black Garden at the Cuxa Cloister, and the gardens in the Bonnefont and Trie cloisters. Designed as an integral feature when the Museum opened in 1938, they continue to enhance the setting in which the Museum’s collection of medieval art is displayed and the visitor’s understanding of medieval life.
Cloisters Audio Guide and Floor Plans
The Audio Guide for The Met Cloisters includes a general highlights tour featuring the voices of Museum curators, conservators, educators, and horticulturists. The approximately two hours of random access programming covers the history of the Cloisters, its architecture, its gardens, and some 70 works of art. This tour is also available in French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese versions. Additional audio programming as part of the Audio Guide includes The Director’s Tour, a music tour, and a family tour for younger visitors.
The Audio Guide is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Floor plans for The Met Cloisters are available in English, Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.
The Trie Café at The Met Cloisters
The café at The Met Cloisters is open 10 am to 4:15 pm, rain or shine, from April through October. (Cafe service is available until 7 pm on summer Fridays.) A light menu of sandwiches, desserts, and coffee is served.
The Met Cloisters Store
Merchandise related to works of art in the collection of The Met Cloisters and its gardens is available for purchase in The Met Cloisters Store. A guidebook, The Cloisters: Medieval Art and Architecture, by Peter Barnet and Nancy Wu, published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, is available for purchase ($24.95).
Extensive, up-to-date information on The Met Cloisters—including hours, exhibitions, and programs—is available at metmuseum.org/cloisters.
Directions to The Met Cloisters
To go to The Met Cloisters by subway, take the A train to 190th Street and exit the station by elevator. Walk north along Margaret Corbin Drive for approximately 10 minutes or transfer to the M4 bus and ride north one stop. From The Met Fifth Avenue location, you may also take the M4 bus directly from Madison Avenue/83rd Street to the last stop. (Please allow sufficient time for this option.)
By car, take Henry Hudson Parkway northbound to the first exit after George Washington Bridge (Fort Tryon Park—The Cloisters). This exit is only accessible from the northbound lane; if coming from the north, take Henry Hudson Parkway southbound to exit 14–15, make a U-turn, and travel north one mile to the exit marked Fort Tryon Park—The Cloisters. Free parking is available.
About The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met presents over 5,000 years of art from around the world for everyone to experience and enjoy. The Museum lives in three iconic sites in New York City – The Met Fifth Avenue, The Met Breuer, and The Met Cloisters. Millions of people also take part in The Met experience online.
Since it was founded in 1870, The Met has always aspired to be more than a treasury of rare and beautiful objects. Every day, art comes alive in the Museum’s galleries and through its exhibitions and events, revealing both new ideas and unexpected connections across time and across cultures.
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June 22, 2016