The Cloisters: A Hidden Museum in New York

‘The gardens, galleries and chapel make for a beautiful mini getaway with out leaving the island’.*  I  read on, intrigued by this description of one of New York’s hidden museums in the guide book.

Even though it is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park sneaks under the radar of many a visitor to this fabulous city. It’s not on everyone’s list of the what to do in New York. Maybe this is because of its location in Washington Heights, a forty minute taxi ride from the centre of Manhatten.

 

The Cloisters, New York

 

First, a little history
In 1917, John D Rockefeller bought the Billings mansion, one of many large fashionable estates that had been built on the northern edge of Fort Tyron Park and started landscaping the large area. Eventually, in 1931, he donated the land to the City which later designated it as parkland.

In the meantime, in 1925, Rockefeller acquired the famous collection of medieval art belonging to George Gray Bernard, an American sculptor and collector, which had been displayed in a medieval inspired museum close by. He then promptly gifted it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Together with his own collection of Medieval art, Rockefeller realised a new home was required for this ever increasing collection of artifacts and employed architect Charles Collens to design a museum. Several original cloisters from French monasteries, shipped to America , stone by stone have been incorporated in the design. The museum now features many aspects of medieval Europe…stained glass windows, sculptures, column capitals, medieval portals and three gardens planted according to information from manuscripts of that time.

Opened to the public in 1938, the museum continues to grow as a result of Rockefeller’s endowments and gifts.

 

Another world awaits as you enter the museum. Just off the main Romanesque Hall we enter the first cloister, with its beautiful, finely carved features from the Monastery of St Guilhem-le-Désert near Montepellier

The Cloister of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert at The Cloisters, New York

Cloister of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, near Montpellier

 

Features of the Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert Cloister at the Cloisters, New York

Finely carved columns, windows overlooking the Hudson River and carved capitals feature in the Cloister

 

At the end of the main hall is the Langon Chapel, elements of which come from a 12th century church near Bordeaux

The Langon Chapel at the Cloisters, New York

The Langon Chapel

 

The beautiful Cuxa Cloister and Garden is at the heart of the Museum, as it would be in a monastery. The rose pink marble columns topped with carved capitals surround the cloister garden with it’s central fountain and paths. This is a peaceful haven where you can imagine the monks would have come to read and meditate.

The Cuxa Cloister and Gardens at the Cloisters Museum, New York

The Cuxa Cloister and Gardens

 

The Cuxa Cloister and Gardens at the Cloisters Museum, New York

Rose marble columns surround the beautiful gardens of the Cuxa Cloister

 

Just off the cloister is the beautiful Pontaur Chapter House. As part of the Cistercian Abbey at Pontaut in Aquitane, the monks used this12th century room for daily meetings. At the time of its purchase in the 1930’s, farm animals were being tethered to the columns.

The Pontaur Chapter House at The Cloisters, New York

Beautiful vaulted ceilings and carved capitals in the Chapter House

 

Next door, 13th Century stained glass windows in the Early Gothic Hall overlook the Hudson River. These beautiful windows are mainly from French churches.

Stained glass at the Cloisters, New York

 

There’s some interesting doorways around the cloister. At the end of this passage, this door is from Poitiers in France and dates back to the 15th centtury . The pointed arch was frequently used to decorate the doorways and to make them look bigger than they actually were.

Passage at The Cloisters, New York

 

Another is this limestone portal from Castilla-León dating back to before 1211. It was reconstructed from eighty fragments.

Limestone Portal dating back to 1211 at The Cloister, New York

The Cloisters, New York

I just liked this door and the iron candle holder!

 

Also coming off this passage way is the room used to display the famous Unicorn Tapestries that once belonged to John D Rockefeller.  Woven around 1500 in Brussels to French designs, these tapestries depict the hunt and capture of the mythical unicorn.

The Unicorn is Attacked-one of the Unicorn Tapestries in The Cloisters, New York

The Unicorn is Attacked-one of the famous Unicorn Tapestries

 

This leads on to the Boppard Room which features stained glass form a 15th century Carmeleite monastery at Boppard-am-Rheim, paintings a, furntiture and other beautiful pieces. I particularly loved the plates and the Paschal candle holder which was used during the Easter services in Castilla-León between 1450 – 1500.

14th century plates and Paschal Candle Holder at The Cloisters, New York

I like these 14th century plates and Paschal Candle Holder

 

Next door, the Merode Room has been built to showcase the Merode Alterpiece, another famous piece in the museum. Reading about this, I learn that it is one of the most famous Netherlandish paintings in the world,  having been painted around 1425. Titled the Annunciation Trytych, it was intended for the private prayers of its owner.

The Merode Alterpice at The Cloisters, New York

The Merode Alterpice

 

The Late Gothic Hall contains a magnificent tapestry from the Burgos Catherdral. It has been magnificently restored by the Museum’s Textile Conservation Department who left a small portion in the orignal condition so as comparisons could be made. It is very hard to find!!

A tapestry at The Cloisters, New York

 

After seeing the Gothic chapel, we headed downstairs to finish our tour in the Bonnefont Cloister and Garden. More than 250 species of herbs and plants that were grown in the Middle ages are thriving here.The central quince trees are surrounded by wattle fences and underplant with the herbs.

Bonnefont Clister and garden at The Cloisters, New York

Quince trees form the centrepiece of the garden

 

Bonnefont Cloister and Garden at the Cloisters Museum, New York

Another view of the Bonnefont Cloister and Garden

 

Espaliered Pear Tree at The Cloisters, New York

This espaliered pear tree is over 60 years old!

 

The garden of the Bonnefont Cloister, The Cloister Museum, New York

In the garden of the Bonnefont Cloister

This garden was the perfect finish to our visit to the Cloister Museum and Gardens at Fort Tryon Park.

 

As we left to wander through the gardens that had started this wondrous journey, we looked back to see the museum sitting proudly high on the hill  overlooking the magnificent view of the Hudson River that had been protected by it’s benefactor.

The Cloister Museum and Gardens, New York           The Cloisters Museum and Gardens, New York

 

The View over the George Washington Bridge from the Cloisters, New York

The View over the George Washington Bridge from the Cloisters

 

Have you been to the Cloisters Museum and Gardens in New York?

 

Directions
By Subway:  Take the ‘A’ train to 190th Street station. Exit by the elevator and follow Margaret Corbin Drive or take the M4 bus to the Museum.
By Bus: take the M4 bus (Fort Tryon Park- The Cloisters) to the last stop

The Museum is closed on Mondays.

 

*Luxe Guide to New York

 

Other posts on New York you may enjoy:
What to do in New York
Eating in New York
Lunch at Eleven Madison Park
Walking New York’s Lower East Side

 

 

 

 

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44 Responses to The Cloisters: A Hidden Museum in New York

  1. Lisa | Renovating Italy October 4, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    What a wonderful secret place, I didn’t know about this but would have visited if I did. Beautiful images and am off for another read. Those courtyard gardens are my idea of heaven!
    ciao love lisa
    x

    • [email protected] October 4, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

      Thanks Lisa. The cloister gardens were my favourite too. I was lovely to escape busy downtown for a few hours and loose ourselves in this beautiful place.Thanks for your promotion of the post.

  2. jan October 4, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    A random friendly New York City local told me about this place. An amazing relocation story. I think the fourteenth century plate photo is particularly beautiful.

    • [email protected] October 4, 2012 at 7:38 pm #

      I learnt about it from a local as well Jan. I not sure why it is not as well known as other places in the city. It’s certainly on my list of things to do in New York!

  3. Mary @ The World Is A Book October 4, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    What a beautiful museum! I had never heard of this place and I have been visiting NYC for many years! I love all the architectural details especially the Rose marble columns and those stained glass windows. I can spend a whole day sitting in those gardens. This is truly a hidden gem and one I need to put on my list for my next visit.

    • [email protected] October 4, 2012 at 7:42 pm #

      It’s interesting that not many people know about it, Mary. I’d certainly recommend people to see it and have put it on my list of things to do in New York. The cloister gardens are so peaceful and the views from the terraces are stunning.

  4. Michele @ Malaysian Meanders October 4, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

    This is so pensive and beautiful. I would have thought you were somewhere in Europe! I’ve heard of The Cloisters, probably in some novel I read, but had no clue what they looked like. Thanks for showing me around. Perhaps I’ll get there some day myself.

    • [email protected] October 4, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

      You do feel as though you are in Europe when you visit the museum. A step back into medieval days!I hope you can visit one day Michele!

  5. Muza-chan October 4, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    Great photos. I love stained glass windows.

    • [email protected] October 4, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

      Thank you. There’s quite a bit of stained glass in the museum and all of it is stunning! You’d enjoy seeing it!

  6. Tracy October 4, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    What a stunning building and gardens. I would never have guessed from the photos that it was in the US. I would have placed it in Italy somewhere for sure.

    • [email protected] October 4, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

      The cloisters are reconstructions of French, Spanish and Roman cloisters Tracy which is why Italy comes to mind for us all. It has been superbly designed and constructed and the medieval art is beautiful. If you are ever in New York, don’t miss it!

  7. Johanna @ The Zigazag Mag October 4, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    Never having been to the States, my tendency is to think that there’s nothing very old, and that a place like this belongs in Europe, so this post was so interesting because it’s made me think about America in a different light. The photos are fantastic and the history you’ve included, very interesting.

    • [email protected] October 4, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

      Everything for the museum was bought from Europe Jo. It reminded me of Hearst’s Castle in LA where rooms were constructed around specific pieces, be they floors, ceilings, tapestries or furniture, that had been imported from Europe. Thanks heavens for benefactors!

  8. Leigh October 4, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    What a great post. I find it hard to believe that its actually NYC we’re talking about here. I feel like I’ve been transported to Europe. I love the detail in your photos and the way you showed its location in the last photo. The gardens look fantastic too. I’ll add this to my must do list for my next trip.

    • [email protected] October 5, 2012 at 12:23 am #

      Thanks Leigh. You don’t feel as though you are in New York when you are here. It’s amazing how it does transport you back to the Europe of the 15th century!It’s certainly one for the to do list!!

  9. Family Travels on a Budget October 4, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

    Wonderful photos and explanation. The Cloisters rivals St. Chapelle in Paris for intricacy and beauty (though that Rose Window at St. Chapelle is incomparable). Who knew we had such amazing architecture here in the United States.

    • [email protected] October 5, 2012 at 12:33 am #

      Thank you Karen. St Chapelle is very different to the Cloisters. The Cloisters is a museum as opposed St Chapelle, a church, whose stained glass windows, I agree, are amazing If anything, the Cloisters reminds me of Hearst Castle in LA which was built around imported architectural components from around this period in Europe. If you’re ever in New York, you should add it to your to do list!

  10. Sophie October 4, 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    Interesting and informative post! Looks like a lovely, peaceful place – and not something one would expect in New York.

    • [email protected] October 6, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

      Thanks Sophie. It’s a very peaceful place..great if you want to escape Manhatten for a few hours. Its also a fabulous museum.

  11. Charu October 5, 2012 at 12:26 am #

    Lovely photos! I’ve always been a huge fan of the Cloisters. It’s amazing what the Rockefellers did to the country.

    • [email protected] October 6, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

      Thanks Charu. You’re the first person who has been there!!I’m still perplexed as to why it doesn’t receive more publicity. Thanks heavens for the Rockefellers. They certainly left their mark on your fabulous city. Thanks for stopping by. Jenny

  12. Lisa Goodmurphy October 5, 2012 at 12:55 am #

    What a beautiful place – and I had no idea that it existed! The stained glass and the tapestries are stunning – I’d visit just to see those!

    • [email protected] October 6, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

      It’s stunning Lisa. The tapestries are incredible especially those in the Unicorn series. I hope you get to New York soon so you can visit. I’m sure you’ll love it.

  13. Dick Jordan October 5, 2012 at 2:27 am #

    Nice shots!

    • [email protected] October 6, 2012 at 7:54 pm #

      Thanks Dick. If you’re ever in new York, it would be a great place to visit.

  14. Cathy Sweeney October 6, 2012 at 5:07 am #

    Wonderful tour of The Cloisters. I was there on Easter Sunday 2006 — perfect place to spend the afternoon. People are always surprised when I tell them about it. Hard to believe it’s right there in Manhattan!

    • [email protected] October 6, 2012 at 7:56 pm #

      It’s interesting isn’t it that not many people know about this fabulous museum.I suppose it’s because it’s on the outskirts of the city but that is what is so nice about it – a great escape!

  15. Krista October 9, 2012 at 8:43 am #

    What a gorgeous, gorgeous place!! So much history and it honestly feels as though you’re somewhere in Europe rather than the US. Thank you for telling us about this place!! 🙂

    • [email protected] October 11, 2012 at 8:48 pm #

      Thanks Krista. It’s lovely to see something as stunning as the Cloisters and be transported back to medieval Europe for a couple of hours in the centre of New York. I hope you get to see it one day.

  16. maq203 October 11, 2012 at 4:52 am #

    LOVE the Cloisters! It’s such a hidden gem! And the gardens leading up to it along the West Side Highway are beautiful too. Such an added bonus of admission to the Met!

    • [email protected] October 15, 2012 at 6:19 am #

      It’s a real escape from downtown isn’t it. Not many people seem to know about it which surprises me so it’s great to read that you love the Cloisters.

  17. Mademoiselle Slimalicious October 15, 2012 at 5:48 pm #

    Hi Jenny, it was so lovely meeting you in Melbourne this weekend! Your photos are so beautiful, it makes me miss Europe! Keep up the good work and keep inspiring us!

    • [email protected] October 15, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

      Thanks Cyndie for your lovely comment. It was great meeting you too.

  18. Suzy October 29, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    Wow! Judging by your photographs and descriptions, it really sounds like you are in Europe and not in the middle of New York. I have heard about the Cloisters before but I didn’t know much about them. Next time I am in New York I will have to make the trip out there.

    • [email protected] October 29, 2012 at 9:27 pm #

      Wandering around the Cloisters is definitely like taking a trip back to Europe, Suzy…until you leave and join the traffic heading downtown! It’s certainly a trip worth taking when you’re next in NYC.

  19. Monica Suma November 2, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    Jenny, your post and pictures are beautiful. Some of the columns remind me of Granada’s Alhambra and the art certainly takes me back to Europe. I mentioned it as well in a gust post I wrote about where the best places to see art in NYC (http://www.imperatortravel.com/2012/10/art-and-the-city-best-nyc-museums-trendy-art-galleries-and-then-some.html), but I am glad you went into extensive detail. So beautiful!

    • [email protected] November 2, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

      Thanks for stopping by Monica.Quite a few of the Cloisters are of Spanish or Italian origin so it is not surprising they remind you of the Alhamabra.I’ll have a look at your post. it’s great that you mentioned it as I’ve found that a lot of people are not aware of this fabulous museum.

      • LaCheun Patten August 4, 2017 at 1:56 am #

        The other day, my mother sent me a picture of my sister that a friend had taken, probably around 1980. She said she didn’t know where it had been taken. I said that I was pretty sure it was in The Cloisters. Sure enough, I was able to match up the architecture of the columns and it was a match.

        I remember The Cloisters being one of the wonderful places my mother took us to when we lived in NY. Very calm and peaceful. At the time, my favorite song was “Sailing” by Christopher Cross. It was a perfect match to the visit there, at least for me.

        • Jenny Freedman August 6, 2017 at 11:12 am #

          What a lovely memory LeCheun. It really is a beautiful place and as you mention, calm and peaceful. That song is perfect! I hope you get back to New York to see The Cloisters again.

  20. northierthanthou June 1, 2013 at 2:04 am #

    The grounds are certainly beautiful.

    • Jenny Freedman June 3, 2013 at 4:52 am #

      They are certainly beautiful Daniel but the building and its contents are even better. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

  21. budget jan March 3, 2016 at 6:31 pm #

    Pinned to my USA board. We heard about the cloisters when we were there – a very friendly lady stopped us in a street in East Village and told us about them – but we didn’t get there!

    • Jenny Freedman March 4, 2016 at 10:35 pm #

      How interesting that the lady stopped you to tell you about the Cloisters. It really is a fabulous museum….next time!
      Thanks again for the pin.

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