November 22, 2011

At The Cloisters: In Two Dimensions

Wall Painting of a Camel; Spain, first half of 12th century; fresco transferred to canvas.

When I visit a museum with my camera, I am most drawn to photographing three dimensional objects; there is excitement in capturing something that exists in space, its volumes and shadows, and reducing it to the two dimensions of photography. But I did take photos of some of the marvelous two dimensional objects at the Cloisters, which I am showing you in this last post on the museum. I was most thrilled to see this fresco of the wonderfully goofy camel. A postcard of it has been on my refrigerator for a couple of years (here's a blog post about the "paintings on my refrigerator") and I had no idea how big it was: it is 8 feet high, a strong presence in a large room.

The Miracle of Christ Raising Lazarus from the Dead; Spain, ca. 1120-1140; fresco transferred to canvas.

Near the camel are two other large frescoes from the same period. I love the flat, simplified forms, the limited color moving across the surface, the patterns of cloth and architecture, the intensity of the faces with their boldly outlined features.

The Virgin and Child and the Adoration; Spain, ca. 1175-1200; fresco.

A slightly later fresco, also from Spain, has the same features that I love in the one above, with even more dramatic patterning around the enthroned Virgin and in the wings of the saints.

Saint Michael (detail); Spain, ca. 1450-1500; tempera and oil with gold and silver leaf on wood.

Saint Michael is skewering a fantastical creature named as the Anti-Christ in the wall label about the painting. It is reminiscent of the monsters of Hieronymus Bosch, who painted around the same time. I love the profusion of detail: of his body, the floor tiles, the elegant armor of Saint Michael.

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece); workshop of Robert Campin, Netherlandish, ca. 1375-1444; oil on oak. From the Metropolitan Museum website.

The Merode Altarpiece is one of the great treasures of the Cloisters. It is complex, yet intimate and tender; every detail, from faces to a key in a lock, is carefully rendered. In the left panel we move from its distant view out to the street into the grassy courtyard, then into the room with the Archangel and Virgin, and to Joseph's workshop where an open window gives us another view out onto the busy street.

Merode Altarpiece detail.

The website link under the photo above takes you to a wonderful high resolution image which enables you to look at all the fine details in this painting, including the tools on Joseph's workbench, down to the nails, along with slivers of wood left from his woodworking chore. The painters who worked on this altarpiece were in love with the objects of this world.

Two Border sections; France ca. 1200; pot-metal glass and vitreous paint.

In addition to painting, other arts are represented in the Cloisters collections, including some vivid stained glass. I was particularly interested in the patterned pieces that acted as borders to the main events; they look joyously colorful, and the repetitions, which are never exactly the same, add to the pleasure.

Embroidery with the Annunciation; South Lowlands, late 15th century; silk and metallic threads on linen.

This very fine embroidery, only about 8 inches high, is delicately made and rich with silk and metallic threads. In its composition and form it is similar to paintings done at the time, but the physical presence and glitter of the richly stitched thread adds a different kind of charm.

The Unicorn in Captivity (detail); South Netherlandish, 1495-1505; wool warp with wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts. From the Metropolitan Museum website.

The great cycle of Unicorn tapestries are a marvel, and you can see them all at the link above, in high resolution, so you can wander through them, entranced by the figures – all looking like specific portraits, clothed in elegantly patterned garments – and the sensitively rendered animals, and most wonderfully for me, the profusion of flowers and leaves and trees; a magical forest to house the mythical creature.

Previous posts on the Cloisters:
At the Cloisters: the Medieval Garden
At the Cloisters: Sculpture
At the Cloisters: Architecture


  1. Thanks for all your generous posts on Cloisters , especially for those of us far away. Always educational and expansive!

  2. thanks, Julie, I'm happy you've enjoyed the posts.

  3. I just love the Dutch architecture in the background of the altarpiece. Of course the people look rather Dutch as well.It sure isn't the holy land.

  4. I love it too, Bettina, along with the interiors. It's nice that artists always set their scenes in places they knew best, bringing them down to earth.