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The Cloisters, Washington Heights, New York City, Part 1

What can I say. It’s exquisite.

The Cloisters Entrance

It’s been a long-time goal to see this fabulous museum. As a student of medieval history and art, visiting this museum — one of North America’s most extensive collection of medieval art and manuscripts — was one of my big travel goals.

The Cloisters is an extension of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, situated on four lovely acres in Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan’s beautiful Washington Heights area. There are several footpaths, paved and unpaved, that afford splendid views of the beautiful gardens and magnificent Hudson River.

Cloisters Path 1

Cloisters Path 4

It’s a popular area for joggers, parents with children and couples to enjoy a little greenery amidst the “concrete jungles” of Manhattan Island. The park is so beautiful and elegant.

As for the building, The Cloisters is constructed of a handful of European abbeys, including the Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Bonnefont-en-Comminges, Trie-en-Bigorre, and Froville. These building were meticulously disassembled piece by piece and rebuilt on location from 1934 and 1938.

The architecture is simply… words fail me. I love medieval architecture so I was reveling in the glory of it all. And despite the muggy heat outside, the building was marvelously cool.

Cloisters 1

Visitors are allowed to wander on self-guided tours. You can rent a small audio device that offers pre-recorded narrative of the building and its contents.

Cloisters Hall 1

The Cloisters has an interesting history. The artifacts and works of art were once the private collection of an American sculptor and medieval art fanatic, George Grey Barnard. After World War I, Barnard opened his collection for public viewing in his Washington Heights home. Barnard sold his collection to Manhattan tycoon John D. Rockefeller, who then donated the art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rockefeller purchased several thousands of acres of land in New York and New Jersey for the construction of a building to house the art, as well as for a park. His land purchases in New Jersey ensured that the extravagant views cross the Hudson would forever remain unspoiled.

Courtyard View Outside

The Cloisters currently maintains over five thousand European medieval works and manuscripts, most of the items dating from the 12th to 14th centuries. The museum itself is also an ancient work of art, too!

Gothic Door

We wandered throughout the museum haphazardly. I felt a little lost navigating the museum, as the halls are rather labyrinthine and the rooms were glutted with crowds of visitors. We pushed our way through two enormous wooden doors with fantastic iron work. This was the entrance to the chapel.

Iron and Wood Door

Chapel

Up atop one of the columns I perceived two heads, sculpted in an unusually clear and recognizable form. Was this King Henry and Queen Eleanor?

Henry and Eleanor Carving

All the art in the museum is religious. Medieval Europe in the 12th century was very Catholic, although from what I have read, religious duties were largely left to popes and bishops and priests, while the laity did as they pleased.

Stone Lion

Virgin limestone_back

Virgin limestone_front

We made our way to (I think) the Langon Chapel, a semi-circular room with several stone effigies. Oh this was so rich with history!

Effigies

Here lies young Jean d’Alluye in mail, a lion guarding his feet. His sword in in its scabbard and the shield rests at his side. Young people were often portrayed at rest in a position of prayer.

Effigy of Jean d'Alluye closeup

Effigy of Jean d'Alluye_lion

This is the head of an “effigy of a lady,” presumed by many to be the resting place of Margaret of Gloucester, wife of Robert II who was baron of Neubourg. The detail of her face and clothing were stunning.

Effigy of a Lady

There was much, much more to see! I’ll show you more in the next post. Thanks for reading!

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About the Author

I've been traveling throughout New York State since I got the travel bug after touring the Herkimer Home on a school field trip as a youngster. We've been blogging about our travels since 2006 and have visited over half of New York's 62 counties so far.

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  1. […] Very few of my vacations are any longer then a day. So my last road trip was to The Cloisters in Manhattan. The museum is SIMPLY AMAZING. I wrote about it with photos on my other blog, if you are interested: The Cloisters, Washington Heights, New York City, Part 1. […]