The Cloisters (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Secrets of the Cloisters

A look inside the revered, uptown annex of the Met reveals hidden treasures from the 12th through the 15th centuries, a garden of Middle Age herbs and some forward-thinking programming

To visit the Cloisters, nestled inside of lush Fort Tryon Park with views of the Hudson River, is to travel back to the Middle Ages and delve into mystical medieval art and architecture. An offshoot of the Metropolitan Museum of Art located in the upper reaches of Manhattan, this magical destination is not the typical museum space. Filled with European relics, tapestries, ivory and stone carvings, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass and much more from the Middle Ages, the Cloisters is an art history buff’s paradise. It’s not just the collection on walls and in the halls that will impress; a big part of the appeal is the design and layout of a museum that was constructed from elements of ancient European abbeys, which were taken apart piece by piece and recreated as a new building in the 1930s. Even getting here can be an adventure (from Midtown, take the A train to 190th Street, walk 10 minutes or take the M4 bus), but as extra incentive, a ticket to the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets you same-week admission to the Cloisters and a ticket at the Cloisters gets you same-day admission to the Met. For even more reasons to visit, check out these 10 insider secrets of this NYC gem.

 

The Cloisters, 1960

The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, New York City, circa 1960 (Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The current architecture is neither an exact copy nor a completely new design
Many visitors assume that the buildings that make up The Cloisters are an exact rebuilding of a European cloister; while others guess the blueprints were copied and recreated in New York. Neither is the whole truth. Instead, they’re a patchwork of architectural elements built from the original designs of Charles Collens and overseen by Joseph Breck and James J. Rorimer. They incorporate parts of five Medieval cloisters from Europe — including Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Trie-sur-Baïse and Froville, as well as pieces once thought to have come from Bonnefont-en-Comminges, plus other unique architectural elements from across the Atlantic. A 12th century chapel was later added in 1958 using blocks donated by the Spanish government. The Met calls it all an “ensemble informed by historical precedents, with a deliberate combination of ecclesiastical and secular spaces arranged in chronological order.” Either way it’s breathtaking.

 

Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin

‘Merode Altarpiece’ by Robert Campin (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Not all of its treasures are on perennially on display
Like most museums, the Cloisters only displays a portion of its collection — in this case only about half of its 2,310 items are on view at any time. While famous pieces like the Merode Altarpiece by early Netherlandish painter Robert Campin are perennially exhibited, there are many spectacular pieces that can only be viewed by those with backstage passes (aka the lucky museum staff) or during special exhibitions. A few of the behind-the- scenes treasures include major architectural elements like the Lion Capital from Fuentiduena and first-rate lusterware (decorative ceramics). Keep an eye on the website to see when these pieces will rotate in from the archives.

 

Refectory Bell, Allegorical Tapestry with Sages of the Past

Left: Refectory bell, right: ‘Allegorical Tapestry with Sages of the Past’ (Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Despite its focus, the museum isn’t stuck in the past
It may be hard to believe as you roam the spectacular halls of this historic jewel, but the Cloisters is not an artifact frozen in time. The museum is always forging ahead, hosting new exhibits and rotating garden displays with the seasons. It has even branched out into interactive public art (see more on The Forty Part Motet at the end of this piece). At the forefront of change is the impressive permanent collection that acquires new pieces each year with the help of the endowment left by John D. Rockefeller and other benefactors. New works most recently purchased include a German refectory bell from around 1300 and Allegorical Tapestry with Sages of the Past from around 1500. “The Cloisters collection is always growing and evolving” confirms C. Griffith Mann, the Michel David-Weill curator in charge of the department of medieval art and The Cloisters.

 

Concert in Fuentidueña Chapel

Concert in Fuentidueña Chapel (Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

You can live the medieval life on special occasions
It’s one thing to walk through its halls and quite another thing to recreate it during a medieval-themed dinner party after the museum is closed. Mark your calendar because each winter, benefactors to the Met (at Donor level and above) gather for a festive and very private feast. Gourmet food, tasty cocktails and a live band playing medieval tunes create an enticing Game of Thrones-type atmosphere. If you can’t conjure the big donation bucks, attend one of the live concerts held in the Fuentidueña Chapel for a small fee, and tickets include admission to the museum.

 

Unicorn Tapestries

Two of the ‘Unicorn Tapestries’ at the Cloisters in Ft. Tryon Park (Photo: David Handschuh/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

The mysteries behind the Unicorn Tapestries
For more than 500 years, scholars, art historians and visitors have been trying to solve one of the Cloisters most famous puzzles — the world-famous Unicorn Tapestries on the walls in gallery 17. Measuring 14 feet wide and 12 feet tall, the seven tapestries were donated by Rockefeller and depict a mystical unicorn hunt by a troupe of majestic noblemen. The tapestries show the story from preparation and hunt to the probable kill and resurrection. Many attempts have been made to decode these delicate pieces of art. For example, does the unicorn rise from the dead after being killed? What is the meaning of portraying a legendary unicorn in such an epic series of works? To add even more mystery, a symbol of “A” and “E” with an unknown origin adorns the tapestries in several places. Is it a family name or the mark of an artist? In the end it will likely remain a mystery for generations to come. But that’s the fun of the hunt, which can you conduct during your visit.

 

The garden at The Cloisters

The garden at the Cloisters (Photo: Wolfsavard/Flickr CC)

The secret “beer garden” offers insight to life before hops
It’s not all old buildings and tapestries; there are three lush gardens that are a huge part of the overall Cloisters experience. The meticulously cultivated grounds incorporate plants, flowers and herbs from historic texts. There’s a full-time managing horticulturist to oversee the vast collection of plants and flowers. This horticultural philosophy makes for a unique garden environment and one that will thrill history lovers, green thumbs and (perhaps surprisingly) beer aficionados. One of the herbs grown in the gardens, alecost, was used to brew beer in Medieval times. (Hops were not used until the 15th century, and prior to that this herb was a key ingredient.)

 

Playing cards from the 15th century at the Cloisters

Complete deck of playing cards from the 15th century, the Cloisters Collection, 1983 (Photo: The Metropolitian Museum of Art)

The medievals were no strangers to gambling
Are you a fervent poker, blackjack or solitaire player? Then make your way to gallery 13 to see the world’s only known complete deck of playing cards from the 15th century. In fine condition, the deck contains the standard 52 cards, but there’s nothing ordinary about its ornamentation. This ancient collection is elaborately decorated with silver and gold trim and painted kings, queens and jokers. It’s impossible to know how the cards were used, but most games back then did involve gambling. Just resist the urge to yell, “Hit me!”

 

'Coogan's Bluff' with The Cloisters in background

A scene from ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ where the Cloisters are seen in the background

The surprising number of popular culture references to the Cloisters
The Cloisters are no stranger to the limelight. The grounds and artifacts have been documented on film, in the written word and comic books. From a dramatic chase in a Clint Eastwood film (Coogan’s Bluff, 1968) to a suspenseful confrontation in a classic Spider Man comic from 1980, the Cloisters has been home to a number of memorable popular culture moments. Items inside the museum have made appearances on screen, too: a facsimile of one of the mysterious Unicorn Tapestries was in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Pay attention when the camera pans across the common rooms at Hogwarts for a glimpse of this famous piece. For a book reference, check out Alice Elayne’s The Hunt of the Unicorn in which the main character is literally pulled into the tapestry during a school field trip.

 

Art at the Cloisters

Look but don’t touch! Sensors abound to keep the art at the Cloisters safe while visitors browse (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Secret sensors guard the important artworks
Get too close to any of the seven Unicorn Tapestries or the famous Merode Altarpiece (1422-1428) and a hidden alarm goes off. Like in many museums today, the Cloisters guards its most valuable treasures with modern technology. In 2010, however, visitors were setting off sensors so often (and they were so loud) that The New York Times wrote a story about it. The museum has adjusted many of the sensors so they are not as sensitive or as loud.

 

The Forty Part Motet at the Cloisters

‘The Forty Part Motet,’ a sound installation by Janet Cardiff in the Fuentidueña Chapel (Photo: Wilson Santiago/The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Contemporary art installation debuts in 2013
The Forty Part Motet, a sound installation created by renowned artist Janet Cardiff, was the first-ever contemporary art exhibit in The Cloisters. From September to December of 2013, the 12th-century Fuentidueña Chapel was home to this mesmerizing performance of a 16th-century choral performance on 40 speakers. Visitors roamed the ancient halls taking in the glorious sounds of the Middle Ages as they contemplated the art on display. This sensory experience drew big crowds and rave reviews from art world critics — it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Cloisters has some more cutting-edge exhibitions in its future.

Uncover more hidden treasures at New York’s most amazing places with our Secrets of New York.