High on a bluff in Fort Tryon Park, at the very northern tip of Manhattan, stands the Metropolitan Museum of Art's astounding medieval-art branch, the Cloisters Museum and Gardens. Reassembled, brick by brick, from portions of five medieval monasteries, the museum provides a harmonious medieval setting to experience the Met’s rich collection of medieval art.
Originally the collection of sculptor George Grey Barnard (housed in a museum on nearby Ft. Washington Avenue), and purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1920s with a donation from philanthropist and collector, John D. Rockefeller Jr., the Cloisters Museum and Gardens now houses a collection of over five thousand pieces of medieval art, including tapestries, ivory and stone carvings, reliquaries, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass and painted altar panels. All of the pieces are displayed within the stone rooms and passageways of the cloisters — calm and evocative spaces that invite contemplation and transport visitors to medieval times.
Perhaps the most famous artwork at the Cloisters, donated by Mr. Rockefeller, is the series of seven tapestries known as “The Hunt of the Unicorn,” or “The Unicorn Tapestries.” These exquisite tapestries – donated by Mr. Rockefeller – are woven of wool, metallic threads and silk, and are so detailed that scholars have been able to identify specific medieval flowers woven into the scenes. Other highlights include the Bury St. Edmunds Cross (also known as the Cloisters Cross), a twelfth-century walrus-ivory cross, and the Annunciation Triptych or Mérode Altarpiece, one of the most celebrated early Netherlandish paintings. The Cloisters' Treasury gallery includes more secular and prosaic items like a complete deck of hand-painted medieval playing cards.
Outside the galleries, the Cloisters commands a superb elevated view of the Hudson River and the cliffs on the opposite (New Jersey) shore. Its gardens have been planted with plants popular in the Middle Ages, and are tended according to medieval theories of gardening.
Good for kids?
The Cloisters museum and gardens is best suited to teens or kids with an interest in medieval art or fantasy. Harry Potter
enthusiasts in the family might be interested to know that the “Unicorn Tapestries” were featured in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
, and the collection even features a unicorn's horn (in actuality, a narwhal tusk – these were often taken to be unicorn horns in the Middle Ages.) The Cloisters Museum and Gardens also hosts regular one-hour family workshops with a medieval slant.
Note: Kids seeking “cool” medieval stuff – i.e., the arms and armor – will find it back at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Did you know?
John D. Rockefeller Jr. also financed the conversion of land to house the museum, contributed works from his own collection and established an endowment fund to guarantee future acquisitions and operations.
To preserve the view from the Cloisters, John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought several acres of land on the New Jersey side of the Hudson to ensure that views from the Cloisters would remain unspoiled.
Admission to the Cloisters Museum and Gardens includes same-day admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, located on Fifth Avenue between 80th and 84th Streets.
Cloisters Museum and Gardens Hours and Location Information