One of my favorite places in New York City is the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Most people who visit the Met go to the main museum building located on Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side. They don’t even realize that the Cloisters museum exists. And that’s part of what makes the Cloisters so special–this museum is a peaceful haven, rarely overcrowded. If I’ve had a hard week and need to recharge my batteries, the Cloisters is the first place I think of going.
So what makes the Cloisters different from the rest of the Met? The museum’s architecture and art is drawn from the European Middle Ages, mostly the 11oos through the 1400s. You aren’t just looking for art on the walls and in display cases–even the doorways, inner courtyards, and ceilings reflect the art and architecture of that era. Much of the focus is on religious art and architecture, although there are also some fine examples of domestic art from the same period.
Some of my favorite parts of the Cloisters are the architectural features. In particular, I find myself drawn to the Pontaut Chapter House gallery, which came from a 12th-century Cistercian abbey located south of Bourdeaux, in France. It is an example of Romanesque architecture. As shown in this photograph, the chapter house had a beautiful, intricate ceiling.
The Chapter House windows, framed by thick stone walls, provide filtered light to this quiet place. (You can also look through them for a glimpse of the Hudson River.) The more you take the time to look around, the more details you will notice. The room has benches along the walls that invite you to take a seat while you carefully inspect each feature.
Another beautiful architectural space begins with entry through imposing wooden doors. The doors serve as a display for 11th-century iron door mounts which came from the Church of Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, near Limoges, France. (You can also see additional art beckoning from the wall in the distance.)
Once you enter this room, the Apse from the Church of San Martín, at Fuentidueña, Spain, you see this impressive sight. The room contains several murals and other architectural features to explore as well.
One of the things that I found intriguing in this space was this oddly shaped hole in the wall, visible in the photograph above on the lower right side. A diagram of this part of the room has labeled the hole as the “Mouth of Hell.” Here is a close-up view of the hole:
Another space that I love is the hallway surrounding this cloister, set off with a series of stone columns. This particular cloister is covered by a skylight that lets in bright natural light. The cloisters also have abundant seating, where you can sit and reflect on what you observe around you.
The photograph below shows the same scene above from another perspective, looking through one of the museum’s other fine architectural doorways to the cloister in the distance.
As you meander through the Cloisters’ many rooms and hallways, you discover countless examples of beautiful medieval stained glass windows. I find it amazing that they have survived so many centuries still intact. Their colors are vivid, particularly when the light behind them illuminates each pane. Here are just a couple examples of my favorites:
And of course there are countless other works of art on exhibit throughout the museum. Here’s a close-up view of one of my favorites, a French statue of Virgin and Child, ca 1340-1350.
I also like this 15th-century German statue of Jesus riding the donkey on Palm Sunday. There is something about this statue that just appeals to the child in me, with its life-size details.
And there is a collection of richly-colored, intricately detailed tapestries, including a series of tapestries featuring a unicorn. In fact, there’s an entire room dedicated to these tapestries. During my visit last week, I took this photograph showing some of the detail from one of those tapestries.
During the warm months, the Cloisters’ abundant gardens make for an additional treat. There are plenty of stone benches scattered throughout the gardens, inviting you to sit for a while and enjoy the peaceful beauty of the medieval plants and garden architecture. Some garden space is on the interior of the museum, in a cloister, with open air to the sky; there is a fruit and herb garden located on an outside terrace as well. This first photograph shows the main interior cloister garden, a tranquil spot with the sound of trickling water in the background from the fountain:
Here is a view of the museum’s exterior fruit and herb garden. There is a gardener’s room where you can learn more about the medieval plants that are grown onsite.
The garden also has espalier fruit trees. For those who have never seen one of these trees before, here is an explanation I found for how they are grown. And here is a photograph I took of one of those trees.
How can you get to the Cloisters? If you take a car, there is parking available, and you can find driving directions here, on the museum’s website. For those taking public transportation, there are two options. First, you can take the M4 bus from the Upper East Side. If I’m not in a hurry, I sometimes like to take this bus. The route lets you see the city from a different perspective, something that I enjoy. But it is a longer trip, and sometimes it may make sense to take the subway instead. You can take the A train to the 190th Street Station. If you choose this route, you can walk through Fort Tryon Park until you get to the museum, following signs like this along the way. (The added bonus: the park is beautiful right now, and there are gorgeous views of the Hudson River and George Washington Bridge in the distance.)