November 14, 2011

At The Cloisters: Architecture

Pontaut Chapter House, France, 12th century; from the Cistercian abbey of Notre-Dame at Pontaut, south of Bordeaux.

Standing in this beautiful room, with its arching vaults and curved windows, quiet and solemn feeling, made me intensely aware of the attraction of living apart from the world in a monastery.

Pontaut Chapter House

In this meeting place, the monks would sit on stone benches that ran against the walls, doubtless not very comfortable in winter; but certainly the simple yet soaring space was an aid to contemplation. How lucky we are to have a public museum in upper Manhattan in which we can experience actual medieval architecture as though we were visiting Europe, and also see a remarkable collection of objects.

The Cloisters Museum, a photo from the museum's website.

I hadn't been to the Cloisters in many years; I was inspired to visit by images of the collection posted by the artist Carol Heft on Facebook, and I'm so glad I went; I'll be writing several blog posts on the museum. The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is located on a spectacular site high over the Hudson River. When you drive up to it, you pass under an enormous stone archway, setting the scene for the building above. It looks like a place out of time, an ancient monastery or church lifted from a French mountainside. It was designed by Charles Collens, the architect of Riverside Church, and incorporates elements of five medieval cloisters; John D. Rockefeller was its patron saint.

Fuentidueña Apse, Spain, ca. 1175-1200; from the church of San Martin at Fuentidueña, near Segovia.

As much as we might feel awed and hushed visiting a museum, the experience of the Cloisters is different; I felt as though I was in sacred spaces. The barrel vault and dome of this apse, with windows echoing the shapes above, gave me a sense of serene grandeur, a place for the spirit to expand.

Langon Chapel, France, after 1126; from the choir of the church of Notre-Dame-du-Bourg, at Langon near Bordeaux.

This chapel is another example of the beauty of the curved arches of Romanesque architecture; it is thick and heavy compared to the Gothic with its pointed arches and flying buttresses allowing for more light, but its calm masses are very pleasing to me.

Trie Cloister, France, Pyrenees, late 15th century;.

This lovely cloister incorporates elements from a convent, abbey and monastery in southwestern France. The original double columns are made of different marbles; the modern arches are pointed since the cloister is of a later date.

Cuxa Cloister, capitals, France, ca. 1130-40; from the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michele-de-Cuxa, near Perpignan.

These fantastically carved capitals, with marvelous beasts and dramatically inventive designs, all come from Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa. From the explanatory text I learned that the monastery was sacked in the 17th century and had fallen into ruin by the 19th. I am so glad that some of this architecture was saved and transported to this great museum. The experience of architectural spaces goes beyond the visual, into deep bodily sensations.


  1. The last time we were in NYC it was closed for refurbishing, so I haven't been there since college. But the Cloisters is such an amazing place that you never forget a visit — no matter how much time has passed. Thanks for a reminder of how wonderful it is.

  2. Oh, such a beautiful space...your images brought my memories into view again. I also remember the tapestries. Time spent at the Cloisters is a gift. I look forward to more images.

  3. Ever since I discovered the Cloisters when I was in high school and stumbled on a free, live Christmas concert, it has been one of my favorite NY sites. It's a wonderful place to visit no matter what time of the year it is.