The Cloisters are the home of the main portion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection.
Up at the extreme end of Manhattan, almost to the Harlem River you’ll find a stretch of riverside parkways that skirt Broadway, around 200th Street. A few hundred years ago, this was the site of a British fort and a defeat for the colonials. Today, it’s green space known as both Fort Tryon and Fort Washington.
Geographically, it’s an obvious place for a defensive position, with a large rocky outcrop extending high above the Hudson, giving 360 views of any incoming invaders. Now it’s a place to escape to, rather than to invade. That’s because it is the home to the Cloisters, the rather peaceful home of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection.
To get to Fort Tryon Park, catch the A train to Dykman/200th Street Station. The park is directly across Broadway. A large playground (with water jets in the summer) dominates the entry before a maze of wooded paths weave you up the hill towards the Cloisters. You may get a little puffed, but at the top you’ll be rewarded with views to New Jersey, north to the Tappan Zee Bridge and south to the George Washington Bridge.
A generous gift from philanthropist, John D Rockefeller Jnr, the son of oil magnate, JD Snr. the cloisters and buildings took shape in 1935, with the donation of land in the Fort Tryon/Washington Heights area. To ensure its peaceful atmosphere and view, he also gifted a large chunk of property on the opposite banks in New Jersey. The site incorporates real cloisters from Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Trie-sur-Baïse, Froville, Bonnefont-en-Comminges and with relics from other secular and sacred sites across western Europe.
Many of the artifacts, originally ‘sourced’ into family collections around the time of the French Revolution, ended up in famed American sculptor, George Grey Barnard’s collection, acquired by the Met in 1938. Rockefeller also added a sizeable gallery of Flemish tapestries including the famed Hunt For The Unicorn tableaux from between 1495 and 1505.
The Unicorn in Captivity is the most famous work in the Cloisters collection
The museum, as a part of the Met collection has signage that mentions a $25 entry fee. This is in fact nominal. They have a pay what you wish deal in place, but don’t like to advertise this openly. The university students in front pay $1 each, while I opt for $5. In the past, I have paid the full price, but it really is up to what you want to pay at the time and that your conscience lets you. And if you are feeling particularly bad about it, there’s no shortage of chapels inside to confess your cheapskate sins.
The Cloisters (plural) consist of three main cloisters, capturing different regional feels and artifacts. Particular attention has been paid in creating authentic gardens and moods. Medieval herbs and natural remedies add texture and color to the ground cover, whilst hops can be found in the Bonnefont garden, attracting annual craft beer nights. The museum is active in creating interest in new audiences, with music performances and art and crafts classes.
The museum is one of the best collections of medieval and renaissance art outside of Europe. At the same time, it brings together true treasures from the past, like golden crucifixes, gem-encrusted chests and rich stained glass windows with another true treasure for most New Yorkers – a moment’s peace and quiet. There’s no place like it in Manhattan and it’s worth a little contemplation – the kind of contemplation you just can’t get on a subway ride.
The Cloisters is a quiet, contemplative place in upper Manhattan that brings together three fully reconstructed medieval cloisters to house the Met’s medieval collection.
99 Margaret Corbin Dr, New York, NY 10040
Catch the A train to 190th Street. For more details, visit the Cloisters website.