The Cloisters:A Walk Through the Medieval World in Upper Manhattan

A Walking Tour of The Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, from Walking Off the Big Apple

The Cloisters: A Quick Overview

During the Middle Ages, aggressive and illiterate 20-year-olds in bad health crowded the cobblestone streets, much like the (Goth)am of our own time. The 20-somethings of today may be taller and cleaner, but to their credit, the brutish, nasty and short Goth counterparts of the 13th and 14th centuries kept themselves busy as farmers and craftsmen and did not lounge around the Village eating brunch. Medieval village dwellers had little in common with the crusading orders, busybodies who lacked humor and were obsessed with recapturing the Middle East from Muslim rule.

Like our own era, medieval European artisans made visual art with the intent of frightening people. Monstrous visions of damnation, carved upon columns, pedestals, and church doors, could spook more people than your average Andres Serrano photograph. Thanks to the French revolutionaries of the 18th century who let their monasteries go down hill and to the restoration zeal of "Junior "(image above: John D. Rockefeller, Jr.), we can all closely examine the scary art of the Middle Ages by jumping aboard the A train.

Clear skies and mild temperatures lured many visitors to The Cloisters yesterday. I overheard a few native New Yorkers confess that it was their first time there. "Who can believe such a place is in New York? Such a gem!," they said. Visitors from France arrived in large numbers, snapping photos of Clovis, Clothar, and Cluny. Given the current euro-to-dollar exchange rate, France could buy the whole place back. Short of that, the Met's gift shop can expect record pre-holiday sales.

The Cloisters Up Close: Ermengol X

The Cloisters Up Close: Ermengol X (1254-1314), Count of Urgel, wore pointy shoes, organized a lovely tomb chapel for family members, and he died without heirs. I know this because I researched his life. I spent part of Sunday in the Gothic Chapel at The Cloisters drawing his shoes, and it seemed kind of rude not to know more about him. I don't know how to pronounce his name.

I wasn't at all familiar with the territory of Urgel, Ermengol's home base, but I have since learned that the area belongs to Catalonia, Spain, and it's near the Pyrenees. The area also benefits from historical ties to Andorra.

The Ermengol family looked comfortable enough in their tomb effigies (other members are in the same chapel at The Cloisters), despite the fact that Ermengol X intended everyone to stay together at the Church at Las Avellanas back in Spain and not at the Cloisters at Las Henry Hudson Parkway in Nueva York. I doubt he expected to have his feet sketched and blogged 700 years later by a Texan.

In tomb effigies it is common to see the individual resting his or her feet upon a lion, a religious symbol of virtue. For example, we see this in the effigy of Jean d'Alluye, the handsome knight in the center of the Gothic Chapel. See him on The Cloisters site here.
However, in Ermengol X's case, I think the animal is not a lion but a favorite dog. It looks more like a dog than a lion, because it has floppy ears. Funerary imagery often included dogs, a symbol of loyalty.

I wondered if E. was comfortable in his pointy shoes. Fortuitously, I found a website that's the final word on this type of footwear - poulaines, complete with instructions on how to make them and a scratchy picture of Ermengol X's shoes.*

* A friend from rural Texas told me that she had an ignorant history teacher in high school who referred to the important American Black Muslim leader as "Malcolm the Tenth."first time there. "Who can believe such a place is in New York? Such a gem!," they said. V

The Cloisters: The Unicorn Tapestries and Their Provenance

Much of the world's greatest visual art hangs in private residences, inaccessible to public view. Anonymous buyers at the world's auction houses squirrel away great treasures at the close of the sale, wonderful works of art only to be viewed by close friends and family. Even Walking Off the Big Apple possesses a great treasure trove of art in her home, including humble vernacular items of the American South, highly skilled paintings and drawings of formally trained artists in academia, and even a page from a 13th century music manuscript that makes her feel like a Morgan. This last work is so private that it's stashed under a stack of blankets in the linen closet, and I forget it's even there.

From 1922 until 1937 the Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries, arguably the most exquisite objects of their era, dating from 1495 to 1505, adorned the private residence of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Prior to his acquisition, the tapestries belonged to the Rochefoucaud family in France, but in the late 18th century French revolutionaries liberated the family of the tapestries. In 1850 the Count de la Rochefoucauld decided he wanted his family's stuff back. The count bought the tapestries from a peasant woman who said she was using some curtains with unicorns on them to cover her vegetables. Rockefeller eventually acquired all seven of these useful tapestries, and in 1937 he presented them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for all the world to see.

The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries, newly restored, now hang in a darkened room at The Cloisters, and if you go on a Sunday morning when the museum opens at 9:30 a.m. (shhh, few know about this, I think) you may be lucky enough, as I was, to have them all to yourself.

For a fascinating look at the restoration of the tapestries, please read Capturing the Unicorn: How two mathematicians came to the aid of the Met. by Richard Preston from the April 11, 2005 issue of The New Yorker.

Absinthe: Its Many Uses in Medieval Times

Unfortunately I have never witnessed a vision. Not one of the 12,000 saints has ever said so much as 'Good day' to me, but since I was first at Lourdes ten years ago I have realized that the phenomenon of visions is something that concerns us all. " - Erich Von Däniken, Miracles of the Gods, 1974*

I'll wrap up the visit to The Cloisters with a few observations, because I plan to return to Chelsea today to better contrast medieval and contemporary art. In the near future I'll put all the related Cloisters stories together and post an official walk on the sidebar where it belongs.

When visiting a museum I recommend picking just three or four rooms and then spending quality time with a handful of objects. This focused visit yields more powerful results than the superficial overview. While visiting The Cloisters, for example, I decided I would only care about the Ermengols, the herb garden, and the dogs in the Unicorn Tapestries and then come back for more later.

While the weather is still mild I recommend a visit to the famous gardens of the Cloisters. I zeroed in on the wormwood plant (artemisia absinthium), so happy to find that this favorite of the flâneur played such an important role in medieval life, too. Monks put wormwood in their ink to protect manuscripts from bookworms, nursing women rubbed the herb on their breasts to encourage weaning, and pilgrims stuffed a bit in their pockets to ward off fatigue.

In William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon squeezes "Dian's bud o'er Cupid's flower" (most likely artemisia absinthium) to bring Titania back to her fairy senses.

Oysters Rockeffer is made with absinthe. We're forging a unified field theory, yes?

What Really Happened at The Cloisters, a tale in the same genre as I Choose Flâneuse, will be available on this website later this fall.

*If you would like to communicate with M. Däniken, please find his website, picture, his tastes in wine and food, and email here.

Pictured above: Junior

John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

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Take the A subway to 190th St. and walk north (10 minutes) along the Margaret Corbin Drive to The Cloisters.

What to bring: Food. The small cafe at the museum is fine, but you may not want to pay $$$ for a sandwich.

Also turn off the flash on your camera and muffle the cell phone.

Enjoy walking through Fort Tryon Park. The Northeast side is hilly and can pose moderate challenges.

Best time to go:

Mornings when the museum opens.

Admission: $20 suggested, so that means you can give what you feel you can afford.

I am a proud member of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and believe that my yearly membership fee is money well spent.

The Cloisters website