‘The gardens, galleries and chapel make for a beautiful mini getaway with out leaving the island’.* I read on, intrigued by this description of one of New York’s hidden museums in the guide book.
Even though it is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park sneaks under the radar of many a visitor to this fabulous city. It’s not on everyone’s list of the what to do in New York. Maybe this is because of its location in Washington Heights, a forty minute taxi ride from the centre of Manhatten.
First, a little history
In 1917, John D Rockefeller bought the Billings mansion, one of many large fashionable estates that had been built on the northern edge of Fort Tyron Park and started landscaping the large area. Eventually, in 1931, he donated the land to the City which later designated it as parkland.
In the meantime, in 1925, Rockefeller acquired the famous collection of medieval art belonging to George Gray Bernard, an American sculptor and collector, which had been displayed in a medieval inspired museum close by. He then promptly gifted it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Together with his own collection of Medieval art, Rockefeller realised a new home was required for this ever increasing collection of artifacts and employed architect Charles Collens to design a museum. Several original cloisters from French monasteries, shipped to America , stone by stone have been incorporated in the design. The museum now features many aspects of medieval Europe…stained glass windows, sculptures, column capitals, medieval portals and three gardens planted according to information from manuscripts of that time.
Opened to the public in 1938, the museum continues to grow as a result of Rockefeller’s endowments and gifts.
Another world awaits as you enter the museum. Just off the main Romanesque Hall we enter the first cloister, with its beautiful, finely carved features from the Monastery of St Guilhem-le-Désert near Montepellier
At the end of the main hall is the Langon Chapel, elements of which come from a 12th century church near Bordeaux
The beautiful Cuxa Cloister and Garden is at the heart of the Museum, as it would be in a monastery. The rose pink marble columns topped with carved capitals surround the cloister garden with it’s central fountain and paths. This is a peaceful haven where you can imagine the monks would have come to read and meditate.
Just off the cloister is the beautiful Pontaur Chapter House. As part of the Cistercian Abbey at Pontaut in Aquitane, the monks used this12th century room for daily meetings. At the time of its purchase in the 1930’s, farm animals were being tethered to the columns.
Next door, 13th Century stained glass windows in the Early Gothic Hall overlook the Hudson River. These beautiful windows are mainly from French churches.
There’s some interesting doorways around the cloister. At the end of this passage, this door is from Poitiers in France and dates back to the 15th centtury . The pointed arch was frequently used to decorate the doorways and to make them look bigger than they actually were.
Another is this limestone portal from Castilla-León dating back to before 1211. It was reconstructed from eighty fragments.
Also coming off this passage way is the room used to display the famous Unicorn Tapestries that once belonged to John D Rockefeller. Woven around 1500 in Brussels to French designs, these tapestries depict the hunt and capture of the mythical unicorn.
This leads on to the Boppard Room which features stained glass form a 15th century Carmeleite monastery at Boppard-am-Rheim, paintings a, furntiture and other beautiful pieces. I particularly loved the plates and the Paschal candle holder which was used during the Easter services in Castilla-León between 1450 – 1500.
Next door, the Merode Room has been built to showcase the Merode Alterpiece, another famous piece in the museum. Reading about this, I learn that it is one of the most famous Netherlandish paintings in the world, having been painted around 1425. Titled the Annunciation Trytych, it was intended for the private prayers of its owner.
The Late Gothic Hall contains a magnificent tapestry from the Burgos Catherdral. It has been magnificently restored by the Museum’s Textile Conservation Department who left a small portion in the orignal condition so as comparisons could be made. It is very hard to find!!
After seeing the Gothic chapel, we headed downstairs to finish our tour in the Bonnefont Cloister and Garden. More than 250 species of herbs and plants that were grown in the Middle ages are thriving here.The central quince trees are surrounded by wattle fences and underplant with the herbs.
This garden was the perfect finish to our visit to the Cloister Museum and Gardens at Fort Tryon Park.
As we left to wander through the gardens that had started this wondrous journey, we looked back to see the museum sitting proudly high on the hill overlooking the magnificent view of the Hudson River that had been protected by it’s benefactor.
Have you been to the Cloisters Museum and Gardens in New York?
By Subway: Take the ‘A’ train to 190th Street station. Exit by the elevator and follow Margaret Corbin Drive or take the M4 bus to the Museum.
By Bus: take the M4 bus (Fort Tryon Park- The Cloisters) to the last stop
The Museum is closed on Mondays.
*Luxe Guide to New York