Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Daemons Discover: Metropolitan Museum of Art Cloisters

(Click to enlarge) Original doorway from
Moutiers-Saint-Jean monastery, ca. 1250
If you know anything about us by now, you know we love a good fabulous museum now and again.  Other than reading a book, it’s a quick and easy way to time walk to another era!  We did just that when we visited Metropolitan Museum of Art Cloisters, or simply the Met Cloisters.

The Met Cloisters, located on four acres overlooking the Hudson River in northern Manhattan's Fort Tryon Park, is the branch of the Museum dedicated to the art, architecture, and gardens of medieval Europe. (Hello ancient de Clermonts!) Deriving its name from the medieval cloisters that form the core of the building, it presents a harmonious and evocative setting for more than 2,000 exceptional artworks and architectural elements from the medieval West. (It’s quite a trek to get there but totally worth it!)

The Cloisters building in Washington Heights was designed by Charles Collens and incorporated parts from the five cloistered abbeys of Catalan, Occitan and French origins.  (This already screams Matthew and the de Clermonts!)

Immediately entering the Cloisters, you can’t help but get a sense of Matthew, the stone mason, as well as the French medieval villages that were prevalent in his early vampire life.  (This is as close as we may ever get to engaging our six senses in medieval Europe and Matthew’s formative world.)

Once we stepped through that portal, there was no turning back! (Gleefully!)

Between 1934 and 1939, parts from Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Bonnefont-en-Comminges, Trie-sur-Baïse, and Froville were disassembled stone-by-stone and shipped to New York City, where they were reconstructed and integrated into a cohesive whole. 

a capital in Saint-Guilhem cloister containing acanthus leaves
and a variety of grotesque heads peering out from the vines
Pontaut Chapter House from Cistercian Abbey of Notre-Dame at Pontaut, south of Bordeaux; French, Aquataine, 12th century

While the Cloisters has many Romanesque structures and artifacts, there are also Gothic chapels and halls that were painstakingly transported from Europe to the Cloisters.  Being enclosed in this ancient and time-honored edifice, there is an overwhelming realization of the regality and chivalry that was alive, well and thriving in medieval times.  However, the thick, massive stone walls and dim natural light (characteristic of Romanesque architecture) were a reminder that these times were literally the Dark Ages, and a renaissance was yet to come.  You can see an architectural comparison between the Romanesque and the later Gothic styles below.

Tomb effigies in the Gothic chapel
Characteristics: pointed arches, wheel windows and tracery,
stained glass with light pouring in, rib vaulted ceilings
Fuentidueña Chapel apse, a prime example of Romanesque architecture
Characteristics:  massive, thick walls, round arches,
sturdy pillars, decorative arcading, groin vaulting

(See the journey of this chapel from Castile to New York here.)

Now that we've had a little Romanesque versus Gothic architecture comparison, the Beinecke Library construction banter that Matthew and Diana share takes on renewed verve:

“I suppose if you’d built it, the Beinecke would look like a Norman keep or a Romanesque cloister.”
“I was thinking of something Gothic—far more modern,” Matthew teased. “Ready to go home?”

 ~ The Book of Life

The Met Cloisters is also renowned for their extensive Medieval European collection.  Throughout the grounds there are luxurious tapestries, including the famous Unicorn Tapestries.  (Apparently they were a thing back then, and even Ysabeau had one -- as mentioned in The Book of Life: “[Corra] waved hello to Matthew with her barbed tail, piercing a priceless tapestry depicting a unicorn in a garden. ”)  There is also an exquisite treasure-trove of stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, statues, and religious relics.

It doesn’t stop there, however.  The Cloisters is fortified, as would have been the originating churches and abbeys. Well-developed gardens would have been essential for survival. The gardens of the Cloisters contain a wide variety of mostly rare medieval species, amounting to over 250 genera of plants, flowers, herbs and trees, making it one of the world's most important collection of specialized gardens. Their design was overseen by during the museums build by James Rorimer, aided by Margaret Freeman, who conducted extensive research into both the keeping of plants and their symbolism in the Middle Ages.

Today, the gardens are tended by a staff of horticulturalists; the senior members are also historians and researchers on medieval gardening techniques.

So concludes the background info.  Let's move on to the practical application...seeing is believing!  It was a breathtaking sight to enter the medieval herb garden. (The word “garden” just doesn’t seem to do justice to the splendor of it all – nor do pictures, but we won't let that stop us from sharing our photos with you!)  It is a simply stunning display of horticulture from an era gone by.  Right smack at center court is the jewel of the garden -- four quince trees. The fruit was just starting to ripen while we were there, and the natural quince perfume faintly filled the cool, crisp air.  Trust us...this quote did cross our minds:

“I can smell the quinces.” Our new life in the Old Lodge was already calling to me.”
~ A Discovery of Witches  (Calgon, errr, quinces take us away!)

We can only imagine that the grounds of Sept-Tours were partially covered by some terrain like this --

Herb Garden with Quince Trees at the center
(complete with "poison plant" signs - as shown in the right foreground - as applicable)
Medieval Medicine Herbs

With a stroll around the garden, we were also transported back to the present at the sight of this stillroom.  We could envision Sarah and Diana, and a long line of witches that preceded them, like the Garlickhythe gathering, and perhaps even Marte too, hard at work in a space as the one pictured here:

(If you’d like to learn more about medieval gardens, MetPublications has a wonderful book free for download in a PDF format:  Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers:  Medieval Gardens and Gardens of the Cloisters)

Walking down the cloister corridor that surrounds the garden, it was easy to get lost into what abbey life, if not medieval life, must have been like!  As we said, being surrounded by so many aspects of the Middle Ages, our senses were certainly firing on all cylinders.

This is just the beginning of our exploration, however.  You never know where we’ll pop up so until next time, #FeedYourDaemons in the meantime, and stay tuned!

P.S. To see a variety of medieval architecture, artifacts and a plethora of medieval herbs from the Met Cloisters' garden and our trip there, view the gallery on Flickr (click here)!

Post by A. Hutter
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