The winter holidays are often filled with memories of past Christmas joys but if you want to go further back beyond your personal memories and see what celebrations were like hundreds of years ago, then make sure to add a visit to The Cloisters to your holiday plans.
Located at the northern tip of Manhattan, just past the George Washington Bridge, along the Hudson, The Cloisters is a museum built from the transplanted churches and other buildings that date as far back as the 12th Century. Open to the public since 1938, The Cloisters, a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, really puts on a show at Christmas. But don’t expect blinking lights or clinking Santa bells. Instead, the museum focuses on the Nativity and the Christian traditions that have survived for 2,000 years.
After paying the fee (suggested is $20 but they will take less.) look up at the vaulted ceiling and chandelier) and enter the Romanesque Hall. Branching off to the left is the Cuxa Cloister and a good place to begin to get a feel for the place. The mission of a Cloister was to isolate the resident from the secular world and help him or her focus on the divine. At the heart of that practice was the cross-shaped cloister garden with a source of water in the center. This offered everything you needed – water, a garden and the Lord. In the winter, this cloister is glassed in but as you walk around the outside, examine the capitals of the columns so you can get a feel for the beauty that surrounded the religious who lived within the walls.
Exit the Cuxa Cloister from the door way that you entered and walk across the hall to the Fuentiduena Chapel. Be sure to look up at the 12th Century fresco, transplaned from a church in the Pyrenees Mountains and be amazed at it’s 1,000 year old beauty.
Walk through one of the side exits to the next small, enclosed cloister called the St. Guilhem Cloister. Here too you see the cross shape with splashing water at the center. But it’s the capitals at the top of the columns that I find most fascinating. Look carefully for my favorite – the one where damned souls are being pulled into the fires of hell. It will certainly help you understand the psyhchology behind the message to a mostly illiterate people.
When you leave the St. Guilhem cloister, make a right into the narrow and dark Langon Chapel. This structure also dates from the 12th century, this time from France. Look at and be amazed by the 13th century stained glass and sculptures from Burgundy.
There are two rooms along the River side of the museum – The Chapter House and the Early Gothic Hall – both time capsules showing what life was like 700 years ago. But the real attraction on this floor are the tapestries.The best of which is in the Unicorn Tapestries room. The room is dim to prevent fading and the staff frowns on flash photos so be warned. Also, don’t get too close, you will set off an alarm! However, look closely at the peacock by the fountain. You can actually see its reflection – simple amazing.
When you exit the Tapestries room, you will be in the Boppard Room. I hope the sun will be shining on your visit because the 15th centural stained glass windows are spectacular.
Look for the stairway and walk down to the Glass Gallery – a room with cases of beautiful ancient artifacts. Enjoy!
Weather permitting, you can go outside to the two exterior cloisters – Bonnefont Cloister and Garden (complete with espalier trees) and the Trie Cloister – a stone covered garden. The views out over the Hudson River and the 200 foot tall NJ Palisades are worth the chill.
Back inside, make your way to the Treasury – home of the Rosary Bead and the Monkey Cup. Look closely to see amazing craftsmanship.
Make you way back upstairs to the Late Gothic Hall where they usually have beautiful Three Wise Men statues and other seasonal displays.
Finally, spend a few minutes in the gift shop. I think a small plastic statue of a knight in armor would be a nice rememberance.
Getting to the Cloisters is easy – take the M4 bus right to the door or the A train to 190th and then hop the bus.
If you have comfortable shoes and the weather isn’t too chilly, you can walk from the train along Margaret Corbin Drive.
If you drive your car, be aware that you are in a beautiful place in a dangerous neighborhood. Never leave anything of value in yours or chances are, it will be gone on your return (from personal experience, alas!)
The Cloisters, maybe the best museum in NYC and my personal favorite.