Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Cloisters, Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan

Image: The Cloisters, Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan
Finally paid a visit to The Cloisters, the branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. The Cloisters is literally a 10 minute walk from my accommodations, and I’m glad I went there. It houses the most amazing collection of art from medieval Europe, dating from about the ninth to the fifteenth century.

The building itself was assembled from architectural elements that date from the twelfth through the fifteenth century. The structure and its cloistered gardens are treasures in themselves, and perfectly complement the approximately five thousand works of art housed there. The collection at The Cloisters is complemented by more than six thousand objects exhibited in several galleries on the first floor of The Met’s main building on Fifth Avenue. The collection at the main building displays a broader geographical and temporal range, while the focus at The Cloisters is on the Romanesque and Gothic periods. Renowned for its architectural sculpture, The Cloisters also rewards visitors with exquisite illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, enamels, ivories, and tapestries. [Source: The Cloisters website...]

Image: Floor plan of the main Cloisters building

Located on four acres overlooking the Hudson River in northern Manhattan's Fort Tryon Park, the building incorporates elements from five medieval French cloisters—quadrangles enclosed by a roofed or vaulted passageway, or arcade—and from other monastic sites in southern France.

Three of the cloisters reconstructed at the branch museum feature gardens planted according to horticultural information found in medieval treatises and poetry, garden documents and herbals, and medieval works of art, such as tapestries, stained-glass windows, and column capitals.

I must say, not having a map of the floor plan during my visit made the experience of exploring The Cloisters and interesting one, in that it felt like I was walking through a rabbit warren of old passageways, dark subterranean vaults, and hidden rooms. This was especially the case when examining the exhibitions in The Treasury section of The Cloisters. Housed on a floor beneath the main building, the Treasury is particularly dark and sparsely lit, presumably to help protect the precious works of art on display there from deteriorating any further than they already have. It is for this reason too that flash photography is prohibited, as well as the touching of any sculpture or stonework.

Image: The Unicorn in Captivity

I have a book about the folklore of unicorns back home in Australia, and the image seen here of The Unicorn in Captivity is in that book (as are several of the other unicorn tapestries in the Cloisters collection). I had no idea the original tapestry was hanging in The Cloisters and was delighted to see this work as it should be seen – hanging as it might have been hundreds of years ago in a castle somewhere in medieval Europe.

Of course, the image does not do the original work justice at all. Dating from around 1495–1505, and ‘standing’ some 3.6 metres high and 2.5 metres across, The Unicorn in Captivity is a stunning work, woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads that vividly depict this elusive, magical creature.

There are seven individual hangings known as "The Unicorn Tapestries," in the Cloisters collection, and these are among the most beautiful and complex works of art from the late Middle Ages that survive. However, it is thought that The Unicorn in Captivity may have been created as a single image rather than part of the collection in The Cloisters or any other series of tapestries depicting unicorns.

Daily Garden Tours
The Cloisters museum has an extensive program of guided tours and talks scheduled throughout the summer. In addition to exploring the beautiful Cuxa, Bonnefont, and Trie gardens, these hour-long tours highlight botanical motifs in works of art. Garden Tours are offered at 1:00 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays, and are free with Museum admission. Read more about medieval plants and the gardens of The Cloisters on the official blog, The Medieval Garden Enclosed.

99, Margaret Corbin Drive
Fort Tryon Park, New York
Ph: 212-923-3700
Monday: Closed
March--October: Tuesday to Sunday: 9:30am to 5:15pm
November to February: Tuesday to Sunday: 9:30am to 4:45pm
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day

There is a recommended admission fee of: Adults $20; Seniors (65 and older) $15; and Students $10. This includes same-day admission to the main Metropolitan Museum of Art building on Fifth Avenue. Members of The Met enter free as do children under 12 (when accompanied by an adult). There is no extra charge for entrance to special exhibitions.

However, having arrived at The Cloisters 90 minutes before closing time, I was clearly never going to visit the main Museum building ‘on the same day’. I mentioned this to the cashier and she seemed happy to accept my contribution of $10.

If was to make one recommendation to The Met, it would be to extend the ‘same-day admission’ offer to at least two days, since a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue would easily absorb a full day. Trying to visit The Met and The Cloisters in one day would be exhausting and only help diminish the pleasures to be had from devoting as much time as possible to the magnificent collections in both buildings.


  1. Thank you for this excellent post. I've been looking for The Cloisters floor plans... where did you find this one? Where can I find more?

    The Cloisters and it's tapestries and gardens are one of my most favorite places in the whole wide world. What a beautiful gift to give to the world...

    Yours, CatherineTodd2 at gmail dot com

  2. Thanks for the kudos, Catherine. If you haven't already, check out The Cloisters website

    You can download a printable PDF brochure and more detailed map of the building here


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