The Cloisters Museum in Manhattan: a Peaceful Retreat in Life and Art

Reliquary busts of female saints, ~ 1525, The Met Cloisters

The Cloisters Museum, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is an unusual oasis in the very northwest corner of Manhattan (Inwood). The museum is a collection of Medieval art and architecture highlighting the Romanesque and Gothic periods from ~1050 -1500.  Since the Catholic Church was the largest and richest power of the time, it is no surprise that Christian themes dominate.  The museum began as a collection of sculpture and architecture collected by the American sculptor George Gray Bernard prior to WWI.  The architectural elements were in a various states of decay, often as pieces incorporated into European gardens, stables and farms, mostly collected from France, Spain and Germany.  Bernard could not maintain the pieces he collected, so John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased them for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, added more pieces to the collection, purchased the land to create Fort Tryon Park and had the museum constructed on the highest point of the park.  Rockefeller even purchased the land across the Hudson River in NJ so it would always have a beautiful view!

View from the Met Cloisters with the Hudson River and New Jersey beyond

Stained glass shows the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, ~1180, British

A 2:21 min tour of the museum here

A 27:28 min tour of the museum here

The museum contains portions of five cloisters, along with several chapels, other small monastic buildings and several galleries.  It also houses the famous unicorn tapestries, among the few remaining from the Medieval period. 

The Unicorn Rests in a Garden (from the Unicorn Tapestries)1495–1505, The Met Cloisters

When I first went to the museum, I wasn’t even sure of what a cloister was.  The word “cloister” derives from the Latin verb “to close” and describes a covered walkway around a courtyard garden area, open to allow light and fresh air as a quiet place of contemplation, reading of scripture and prayer. The cloister was also used for processions and as the main route to get from one set of buildings to another in the complex. It was often built into the corner of the cross-shaped church.

The peacefulness and spirituality of the Cloisters Museum contrasts sharply with the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.  It feels like you’ve entered another world in time and space and you can feel your breathing slow and the quiet entering.  It’s no wonder it has been used repeatedly in both film and literature, including a Clint Eastwood action film!  More recently, the museum was a central location in the novel The Cloister by James Carroll.

The Cloisters Museum seemed a natural place for Colleen, the central character in Breathing Water, to end up when she was in the uncomfortable waiting period between being married due to an unexpected pregnancy and the birth of her daughter.  Colleen was living with her new father-in-law, feeling the judgment of her family, society and her church.  In 1950s America pregnancy out of wedlock was treated as if the whole thing was the young woman’s fault, even though it most definitely takes two to make a baby.  The sin was sharp in everyone’s mind until the baby was born and the miracle of a new life helped Colleen’s transgression to fade.  While visiting the Cloisters Museum, Colleen felt a connection with the Virgin Mary she couldn’t feel elsewhere because the space felt spiritual without judgment.  Here’s the statue she saw that helped her to feel a connection with Mary… Mary who also had to live in this between time after being married and waiting for the baby.  It’s no wonder that Mary went to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth during her own pregnancy. 

Enthroned Virgin and Child, ca. 1130–1140, French, The Met Cloisters

Although it is stiff, elongated and formal in the Romanesque style, there is a surprising amount of emotion in Mary’s figure.  She is slightly stooped, with the weight of the life she sees ahead for herself and Jesus, but she is also peaceful and strong.  This Mary fully accepts their future with the full knowledge of the hardships ahead.  This is the Mary to whom Colleen can relate.  As in other Romanesque art, the baby Jesus is in the form of a miniature man, showing his fully formed divine nature coming to us through the body of the Virgin.  She is the throne he sits upon and represents the Church and its wisdom.  Jesus holds one hand to bless humankind and the other holds a book representing the Word incarnate.  Although it is unfortunate the head of Jesus has been lost in this statue, I find it makes the image of Mary more powerful because the full focus is on her.

Colleen also felt deeply moved by a late Gothic, life-sized, reclining statue of a mother and child.  In Gothic art, figures are more natural and less regal, with more human expressions.  At first Colleen assumed the statue was of Mary and the baby Jesus, but then realized the baby, so lifelike and happy, looked like a girl.  This statue was of Saint Anne on her birthing bed with her child Mary. All was well after the birth and both mother and child bear the blush of good health.  It made Colleen yearn for her future baby to be so content and helped motherhood seem more real to her.

Nativity of the Virgin,  ca. 1480,  German, The Met Cloisters

In the statue, Saint Anne’s right hand symbolically points toward the baby who will have such an important choice to make when she’s about 14 years old (Will she accept the Divine into her womb when the angel Gabriel comes to call?). Interestingly, the sculpture is made from gesso, covered with tin then painted and glazed.  The color has been preserved well, adding to the life-like nature and charm of the work. 

In Breathing Water, the Cloisters Museum became a refuge for Colleen during this waiting time.  One can wonder how many others have found peace and refuge among the stones of the original buildings and now the museum. 

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