Nestled in the northwesternmost corner of Washington Heights overlooking the Hudson River, and near where I once lived, The Cloisters was my sanctuary; a place to slow down, calm nerves the city had set alight, and focus, ponder, and recharge. It’s lost none of its quiet power, and it feels very good to be paying a return visit.
Designed by Charles Collens, and taking up four of Fort Tyron’s sixty-six acres, The Cloisters (officially an arm of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) includes parts of five European abbeys that were disassembled, shipped to this high corner of Manhattan, and painstakingly rebuilt stone-by-stone in the 1930s, opening to the public in 1938.
The park was originally established by John D. Rockefeller in 1917 and then donated to the city in 1935. Rockefeller also purchased and donated several hundred acres of land on the New Jersey side of the Hudson (now part of Palisades Interstate Park) to ensure the museum’s view was left undisturbed. As well, Rockefeller purchased and donated George Grey Barnard’s extensive medieval art collection to the museum, and further donated numerous pieces from his own collection. Probably the most famous piece of these, and certainly the iconic centerpiece of The Cloisters, is The Hunt of the Unicorn – a series of Flemish tapestries dating between 1495-1505 depicting a group of noblemen and hunters capturing a unicorn.
The rest of the collection at The Cloisters consists of several thousand European medieval works, most of which date between the 12th and 15th centuries, including numerous manuscripts and illuminated books. Over the years, both the museum and many items in its collection (including the Unicorn Tapestries) have been refurbished or restored.
The hidden gem among all the works undoubtedly has to be the museum’s gardens, where a careful eye has been given to showcase what would’ve been found in similar gardens during that period. Some are focused around the more academic function of plants in the art, cooking, and medicine of the time; while the Cuxa Cloister and Garden, located in the middle of the museum’s main level, is more ornamental.
You can spend hours roaming the museum’s various chapels, halls, and cloisters, entranced by the art and architecture of the Romanesque and Gothic periods of medieval Europe. As well, you can do what I do on most visits and quietly work your way through the gardens, enjoying its fragrant smells while spending time catching up on writing, sitting outside basking in the late afternoon sun taking in an amazing view of the Hudson, slowing down and spending time outside of and removed from the rest of the city’s the never-ceasing grinders.
There are many things I miss about New York, but it’s this place – probably the most un-New York place of all in the city – that I miss most and always look forward to visiting whenever the opportunity presents itself.