The Cloisters Trip to the Cloisters
The Cloisters
By: James Murray

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (METS) has a facility in Fort Tryon Park overlooking the Hudson River called the Cloisters. If you don't know what a cloister is; Webster defines a cloister as an area within a monastery or convent to which the religious are normally restricted. A cloister may be a monastic establishment or a covered passageway around a court often with one walled side and the other side an open arcade or colonnade. Cloister may also mean secluded from the world.

On a Saturday morning in September (2003), my wife and I decided to make a trip to the MET's cloisters. I have a membership to the museum and I am interested in almost every involvement in which the museum participates. Many times I have been to the main building, but never to the Cloisters. We had no specific plans for this day and thought it would be a good day to go; it was a great day to visit the Cloisters.

About midmorning, we decided to leave our home in central New Jersey and take the train to Penn Station, New York. I knew that it was going to be a great day when a young lady gave up her seat on the train so that my wife and I could sit together. From Penn Station, we took the A train (subway) up to 190th St., then we used the elevator up to the ground then walked the rest of the way to the park. There are plenty of signs and this morning there were several people going in the same direction. In fact, we met a couple on the elevator that was also going to the same place. The elevator operator over heard our conversation, told us about a movie that was once made in the Cloisters.

Main levelLower Floor

It was near noon when we arrived at the park, before entering the cloisters Aleene I decided to eat our small picnic lunch which we had brought with us. The weather was nice and warm, but not too hot to walk around. We decided to find a place to eat, maybe a bench or picnic table. While looking for a suitable eating-place we walked past a flower garden that had several varieties of flowers in bloom. We found a bench in Fort Tryon Park where we ate, we also had a bottle of water but there are some water fountains in the park (don't know if they work or not). From the bench where we ate we could see squirrels playing in the trees. There was a small fence around a green area, the squirrels were hopping over the fence with ease then I realized that the fence was not to control the squirrels but to control the humans. Also, a there was a beautiful stone bridge next to our bench and what appeared to be a small "valley" behind us. A seemingly highly dignified elderly couple sat on the same bench as Aleene and I but we only shared smiles and a polite bow for greetings. For those that do not have a lunch with them, there is a restaurant in the park. The park had plenty of trees; the grounds were clean and nice. Yes, we were still in Manhattan!Bell Tower

After eating lunch, we decided to continue our walk to the cloisters. We could see what appeared to be bell tower to the north an above the treetops. We had a few question as to how to get there, but then we started following the signs. There was a sign at every questionable point as we walked along the way. However, this is not to say that the walking was easy; at one point we had to go down a long set of steep stairs that were very narrow, with no handrails. I am sure there is a way to circumnavigate the stairs but it was interesting, in front we could see the Hudson River as we were walking down. At the foot of the stairs we could see an open meadow where people were playing. There was also a big banner advertising a "medieval festival." I asked someone "what is a medieval festival?" The reply was, "it's mostly about eating." My response "I suppose it is one of those events where you put your face into the food, rather than your food into your face."
Aleene in front of Cloisters
Soon we could see that the cloister was actually a stone castle or monastery looking building setting on a hilltop with a high bell tower. There were no obvious entrances and we did not know how to enter, therefore we walked on the driveway hoping to see marked entrance. There appear to be a bus stop on my left as we started walking up a hill. Eventually, we met much younger couple also looking for an entrance. We could see an unmarked doorway, they much younger and volunteered to walk up the hill in see if the doorway was an entrance. I decided to wait for their signal for the doorway was up hill on a cobblestones path and I was tired. They signaled that the doorway was an entrance, knowing this I gladly walked up the hill.

In order to enter the building we had to walk along an entranceway for a few steps than into a medieval looking doorway. The doorway led into the Main Hall, a high domed rotunda looking room. At this point, there is a guard and a ticket office; you need to get a pass to tour the rest of the facility. The facility isn't extremely large but intimidating due to the gardens and layout.

Aleene and I looked around for a few minutes, found the rest rooms and asked about escorted tours. There seemed to be a different tour about every hour, each tour lasting about 45 minutes. This would give people time to finish one tour before the next tour started. As expected from the METS, everything in the facility is professionally presented. There is nothing trivial about the building or it's contents.Cuxa Cloister

As we waited for our first tour, we looked inside a couple of the adjoining rooms. We found several types of pieces including carvings, tapestries, paintings, stones and garden plans from medieval European monasteries and churches. Our first tour guide soon came, there were only a few people ready for the first tour. First we were introduced to the Cuxa, a garden on the main level. The garden is laid out with a fountain in the middle and the four walkways form the Christian symbol, a cross.

There is another level below the main also with gardens. The guide explained that she was not a medieval horticulturist but had a degree in medieval architecture. However, she knew most of the plants in the garden and explained their purposes. For one, in medieval times Lavender was grown to cover over body stench due to the lack of baths. She explained that baths could kill a person; in medieval days the water was often contaminated. The concept of bringing flowers to a lover was also an attempt to cover the body orders.

Next, with the same guide, we toured the Unicorn Tapestry room, which contains a collection of tapestries featuring unicorns. The guide gave us about a 30 minute lecture on unicorns and how they relate and link spiritual and secular themes. Our final stop on this tour was the Bonnefort Cloister a lower level outside garden. While several plants were similar to those in the Cuxa, there were many different. There were two quince trees, each heavy with fruit. The guide explained that they were not eatable but she did not explain that they are the nearest things to a rock that grows on fruit trees. However, in the garden is sectioned off for medicinal, culinary, spice and material plants. Some of the plants were early medicine, some were eaten (i.e., collard greens, strawberries, etc.), and some herbs and added spice to other wise bland food and some were used to make paints and coloring agents.
Cuxa Cloister
After this tour was concluded we decided to catch the next tour, it also was scheduled to originate in the main hall. However, we were distracted and a little confused on the best route back to the Main hall but finally, while walking through the Romanesque Hall, we found a tour sitting while listening to a tour guide in the Fuentiduena Chapel. We decided to join this group but we could hardly hear the guide and only toured Pontaut Chapter House, still we could not hear the guide but according to the brochure this is an actual Twelfth-century chapter house from the Benedictine abbey of Notre-Dame at Pantaut (Gascony).

James in doorwayWe decided to tour on our own because we could not hear the guide clearly. First we walked through the Early Gothic Hall and down the stairs into the Gothic Chapel. There were several what appeared to be crypts or tombs, stained glass windows and sculptures in the chapel. This small space is a representation of a chapel, it is not full size as originally planned. However, it is representative of a chapel of its era.

After touring the Gothic Chapel, we walked out to the Glass Gallery where there are many statues and other artifacts. Some of these artifacts are have comments and pictures on the Cloisters web but there are many, many others that are not on the web.

Next we toured the Treasury, this is a very important room. Again, several artifacts from this room are described on the web. After looking around the main room there is a much smaller room of precious gems and material items at the exit to the Treasury. From the Treasury we decided to go back to the main floor and soon found another tour group. This tour group we almost on the same tour as we had just finished on our own. However, since the guide was very knowledgeable we decided to re-tour the same rooms again. One particular item of interest, which the guide explained in detail, was an ivory cross, the Cloisters Cross.

As our final tour, we decided to visit the delicate but interesting is the 12th Century Spanish Fuentiduena Chapel. According to some resources, this chapel is used for musical presentations most likely because of the acoustics.

This is web page is only a brief introduction to the Cloisters, it would be impossible to include all the most interesting points, articles and settings found in the museum. The rural setting in New York City, the hill top, the river, the winding cobble stone street all create an environment that makes one feel that they have travel to medieval Europe.

After leaving the cloisters we decided to take the M4 bus back to Penn station. Our decision was worth the trip, the bus goes though many unique and interesting sections of upper Manhattan. The bus route roughly goes down Fort Washington Parkway to intersect Broadway, then east on Broadway on Cathedral Parkway which passed on the south side one of the largest cathedrals in New York, the Cathedral of Saint John's the Devine. Central park is on the right side of the bus as it goes along this very interesting street.

When the bus comes to the northeast corner Central Park, it makes a turn down 5th Avenue which is also knows in parts as Museum Mile. Of course, on the route the bus passes the main building the Metropolitan Museum of Art before continuing down 5th Avenue past such landmarks as Trump Towers, Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Rockefeller Plaza etc. Eventually the bus stops near Penn station but we decided to get off on 49th street and walk over to Broadway. There in and around Times Square there is always something interesting, this day was no exception. In fact, we had dinner in one of the restaurants before continuing our walk to Penn Station.

Aleene at back gateOnce we arrived at Penn station, I notice that our train was boarding at that time so we ran to our gate. Once inside the car there were plenty of seats, most of the day-trippers to New York were still in the city.

This was a very, very interesting Saturday. The cost was minimal, less that $50 for the two of us including transportation, admissions and food. Yes, I do want to go back and read the details some of the articles in the museum. In fact, I want to search the web and find more on those articles right now. Below you may find these web sites interesting but there are many, many others, search on your own and visit the Cloisters.


Some Important Links:
  1. Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
  2. Cloisters main page
  3. Cuxa Cloister
  4. Fifty Items in the treasury
  5. Floor Plans for the Cloisters
  6. Fort Tryon
  7. Fuentiduena Chapel
  8. Rockfeller Plaza
  9. Saint Guilhem Cloister
  10. Saint Patrick's Cathedral
  11. The Church of San Leonardro al Frigido
  12. Trump Tower