Last month I spent a Saturday afternoon venturing up to Fort Tryon Park in Hudson Heights to visit the Met Cloisters-- the lesser known, medieval branch, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Opened in 1938 the Met Cloisters is a branch of the Met dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval times. Inside you will find works largely dating from the 12th to 15th century and, as typical with the time period, much of the works are related to religion and the church. So you can expect to see illuminated manuscripts (pretty bibles/books), stained glass, tapestries, metal work, and much more. In addition to the impressive collection of art and artifacts, the museum sits atop a hill on a 4-acre property that overlooks the Hudson River that provides incredible sweeping views of the river.
Undoubtedly, the art and artifacts are a major draw to visit the museum, but the museum building itself is the biggest reason you should drop everything you are doing and go right now. From the outside (and let’s be honest the inside too) the building looks like an ancient monastery. The stone facade, cobblestone driveways, and cold interior make you feel like you’ve time travelled to Medieval Europe. And, quite honestly, that feeling is not that far off from the truth. A lot of thought and effort went into making the building as authentic as possible. Instead of modeling the museum after a specific monastery in Europe, the Metropolitan Museum used parts and pieces of three different medieval cloisters from France to assemble the building. When you visit any museum there is always a sense that you are walking through history, but at the Met Cloisters you are LITERALLY walking through history.
Before going any further, I need to explain what a cloister is. A cloister is a covered walkway with an open arcade (arches) on one side. The arcade should open into a quadrangle garden space. Cloister are typically found within a building, what we today would call a courtyard. In medieval monasteries, cloisters were the cornerstone of the building. In Monastic life, the cloister and interior garden served as a place for contemplation. In fact, it is known that many would walk around the cloisters, sometimes for hours, contemplating and praying. Particularly, monks would walk the covered walkway and look through the arcade into the garden. This was interpreted as a window to the “paradise garden” which many monks saw as a promise of Paradise or Heaven that awaited them when their Earthly lives ended.
The architects and historians of the Met Cloisters kept this in mind when designing the museum and referenced medieval poems and texts to design the gardens that are incredibly accurate to the time. To this day, the museum’s staff historians and botanists ensure the gardens are well kept and all flora are accurate to a medieval garden. In fact, you can take tours and classes that discuss the different plants and practices in the gardens. In addition to the design and plants of the garden, historians did extensive research to ensure that stained glass, tapestries, and other pieces were placed near and around the cloisters exactly as described in the poems and texts of the time.
The Met Cloisters is worth the trip uptown. Make the most of your day with one of the many guided tours the museum offers, sit in the garden while the bell tower rings at the top of every hour, walk the cloisters like the monks who did hundreds of years before, and finish your day picnic in Fort Tryon Park. You visit will transport you to a different time… and I can’t think of anything better than that!