Curriculum Vitae

A New Look at The Cloisters

The Cloisters has an interesting history - as, when you think about it, how could it not. The bulk of the original collection, including the medieval elements of the four cloisters within the museum, was assembled by an American sculptor living in France, George Grey Barnard (1863-1938). A bucaneer, Barnard spirited his collection out of France two steps ahead of legislation that would have made such export illegal. He housed the sculptures in a shed in northern Manhattan; this was the original Cloisters museum. Barnard soon found himself overextended, however, and in 1925 John D Rockefeller Jr bought his installation for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By 1938, the collection was reinstalled in the current building, surrounded by another Rockefeller project, Fort Tryon Park (designed by Frederick Law Olmsted's sons), and facing a third, the Palisades across the Hudson (complete with a genuine monastery).

I don't know when I made my first trip to The Cloisters, but it was certainly over forty years ago, when I was in my late teens. I thought it the most magical place that I'd ever been to, and I soaked it up so thoroughly that, decades later, on return visits, I could hardly see it. Memories of the museum were so strong that my eyes confined themselves to avoiding bumps in the pavement. Standing in the Cuxa Cloister - the big one - on a fine day gave me a taste of unchanging eternity. 

That's why it took a while to see that The Cloisters is not unchanging. It has its own history and its own eras. It is no longer in the era of my initial acquaintance. New curators have judged the collection differently. An example: the Enthroned Virgin and Child in the Langon Chapel - No. 9 in the new guide, The Cloisters: Medieval Art and Architecture, by Peter Barnet and Nancy Wu (MMA/Yale, 2005). This birch carving, deeply infused with the spirit of the pietŕ (perhaps because the child is headless, but certainly because of the madonna's desolate expression), used to stand on the altar. I don't have to rely on my memory for that statement (although I do), because the photograph of the chapel that appears in the old guide - The Cloisters: The Building and Collection of Medieval Art in Fort Tryon Park, by James J Rorimer, Margaret B Freeman and others (MMA, 1963) - backs me up. The sculpture is still in the chapel, but now it stands in a glass box on a plinth at the rear, near the doorways. It is much easier to see; it is climate-controlled; and it never ought to have been on an altar in the first place.

At the same time, the madonna looked good on the altar of the Langon Chapel. It seemed to be part of an interior, as an interior might have been eight or nine centuries ago. Now it is an object on display in a museum, cut off from the world around it, and dependent upon technologies that couldn't have been guessed when it was carved. The illusion of standing in a medieval chapel has been dented. In the room that has always housed the magnificent Mérode Altarpiece, illusion has been discarded altogether. Here is the old guide:

This room, called the Spanish Room because of the painted Spanish ceiling, has been furnished as a domestic interior such as one sees in late medieval paintings. Many of the objects here are similar to those shown in the Campin altarpiece, the most important work of art in the room and one of the greatest treasures at The Cloisters.

The description of the room ends with a remark about my favorite touch: "The iron birdcage of the fifteenth century is the only one known to have survived the Middle Ages." An optimistic statement, perhaps. The birdcage has disappeared, and not just from the old Spanish Room, which is no longer "furnished" at all but rather outfitted with display cases similar to the one sheltering the madonna. The "Campin altarpiece" has become the "Mérode Altarpiece," and the "Spanish Room" has become the "Campin Room."

That the birdcage might have been pronounced a forgery by more recent curators is suggested by another development. In the northeast corner of the Cuxa Cloister, set into the wall, is a fountain that spills into a massive basin supported by two brackets. According to the old guide, the fountain is about as old as the cloister, early Twelfth Century. According to the new guide, it doesn't exist. The identification card posted on the wall beside it calls it early Twentieth Century. If it were as easy to remove as a birdcage, the fountain wouldn't be there anymore. But not so fast: one fine day, the museum may showcase the fountain in an exhibition of other fakes.

The objects in a museum may, conceivably, remain the same over time, but the eye that arranges them will change. At The Cloisters, change is gradual but perceptible - at least to an eye that has seen the place over forty years. (July 2007)

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