The Cloisters

The Cuxa Cloister. Photo by Sean Mize.
The Cuxa Cloister. Photo by Sean.

A branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If only the Cloisters weren’t quite so far uptown! The medieval art museum, a small branch of the mammoth Metropolitan, is an oasis of quiet—and not just in terms of volume. The stillness of the place, from the enclosed gardens to the chapel-like architecture, inspires a more transcendent quiet, the kind that permeates your skin and settles into your soul. If I didn’t have to take a forty-some-minute subway ride to get there, I might visit more often.

It’s not that I’m a huge fan of medieval art. I appreciate the craftsmanship of the intricately carved devotional diptychs, the radiant colors of the illuminated manuscripts, the majesty of the stone portals, but the religious subject matter and uniform style become a touch monotonous after a while.

There are exceptions, of course. The unicorn tapestries, for example, are truly beautiful, but beyond that, they’re different, a welcome respite from the crowd of saints and Madonnas. What’s more, the meaning of the tapestries is a mystery. The unicorn has served as a symbol for immortality, marriage, wisdom, and Christ—among other subjects—so the story told by the tapestries is open to broad interpretation.

The seven panels weren’t created as a set, but they function as one, portraying a band of men who attack and kill a unicorn, which then returns to life in captivity. So enigmatic are the images that numerous interpretations further afield from medieval iconography suggest themselves, as well. Perhaps the unicorn is paganism, stamped out but repurposed by Christianity, like Yule becoming Christmas. Perhaps the creature is an independent woman, beaten down by a patriarchal society and trapped within a narrow domestic sphere. Perhaps it represents innocence, in the William Blake sort of sense, attacked by a sinful world but still sheltered, if a shadow of its former self, in a virtuous heart. The tapestries are haunting and rich with possibilities, but no matter what explanation I imagine, I can’t escape a sense of loss in the final panel. The image of the magnificent mythical creature confined to a small pen is a tragic one.

But as much as I love contemplating the tapestries, I love the Cloisters’ three gardens even more. The Cuxa Cloister follows a medieval monastic plan, with a fountain at the intersection of two paths dividing the garden into quadrants, each with its own crabapple tree. The Trie Cloister blooms with plants from European meadows and woodlands.

My favorite, the Bonnefont Cloister, has a truly impressive number and variety of plants, all carefully labeled and divided according to their use during the Middle Ages. In one of the four raised beds are culinary plants, in another are medicinal plants, and in the third are plants used by artists. The fourth bed is simply, charmingly labeled “Magic Plants,” which always makes me smile, especially when I come across the mandrake and start quoting John Donne to myself. (“Go and catch a falling star / Get with child a mandrake root…”)

To me, a hopeless gardener, the plants are a mystery. I imagine the apothecaries and artists and cooks and monks and midwives who knew these plants intimately, knew their qualities and their dangers and their secret applications, and I envy them that understanding of the natural world. But as I sit there on a stone bench, with the Hudson River at my back and herbs and flowers and fruit trees all around me, it’s enough just to be among them, marveling at the diversity and beauty and value of nature. If only the Cloisters weren’t quite so far uptown!