Unicorns And Abbeys At The New York Cloisters Museum

Cluxa Cloister
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I’d heard about the Cloisters Museum long before I ever went to New York. This is the home of a series of medieval unicorn tapestries; unicorns have been a mild obession of mine ever since I discovered the Cluny tapestries in Paris. But I soon found that there is far more to the Cloisters than unicorns. This is a museum with a difference.

Cloisters Museum
Approaching the Cloisters Museum from Fort Tryon Park

Building The Cloisters Museum

The Cloisters Museum is situated in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan; even on a winter morning it was a pleasant walk from the subway, passing through the park and alongside the Hudson River. John D Rockefeller gifted this park to the city in the 1930s, and commissioned a new museum in the grounds to house his extensive collection of medieval art. The architect he chose was Charles Collens, and it was clear from the start that this would be no ordinary museum.

Gothic Chapel Gallery
The Gothic Chapel Gallery contains windows, relics and sculptures from different abbeys and churches

The building was a mixture of old and new. The basis of the museum was remnants salvaged from various abbeys in France and other European countries. Using modern methods but medieval designs these parts were stitched together to create a series of cloisters and chapels. In some cases authenticity was enhanced by using original building materials. For instance, the Cluxa Cloister was built using sections of the Abbey St Michel de Cuxa, and stone for the reconstruction was taken from the quarry used for the original abbey.

Medieval doorway
A medieval doorway is incorporated into the museum building

The gardens within the cloisters were laid out according to medieval principles, using both ancient and modern plant species.

A Peaceful Cloister

As well as the reconstructions, the Cloisters Museum has around five thousand medieval artworks, collected from various European monasteries and other religious establishments. These include paintings, sculptures and manuscripts, as well as individual architectural features such as doorways and stained glass. But I wanted to see the unicorns.

Unicorn tapestry
“The Unicorn in Captivity”, one of the series of unicorn tapestries

These tapestries are shrouded in mystery. For one thing, their origin is unknown. They are probably Belgian from the late 15th century, but no-one knows for certain. Then there is the subject matter. The pictures show a group of courtiers hunting, and then capturing, the unicorn. They are full of Christian and pagan symbolism, and unicorns themselves were a common image in the Middle Ages. However it is not known how these particular tapestries were intended to be interpreted, and it continues to inspire debate among experts and amateur enthusiasts.

Cluxa Cloister
The peaceful Cluxa Cloister

I spent some time with the unicorns; you don’t have to understand the imagery to appreciate the beauty of the tapestries. Then I sat for a while in the Cluxa Cloister, where I listened to the sound of running water from a French fountain. Pots of fragrant plants lined the edge of the passageways. I had the place to myself; it seemed to fulfil the original function of a cloister, to provide a space for peaceful reflection. I could almost have been back in the Middle Ages.


5 thoughts on “Unicorns And Abbeys At The New York Cloisters Museum”

  1. Vicki Winters

    As someone who lives in New York, I am slightly embarrassed that I’ve never been to the Cloisters. Thanks for sharing. I need to go see the unicorns.

  2. What a lovely place. I was interested in reading about it as I will be in NYC in 2 weeks. I have to admit I’ve never been to the Cluny museum but have passed it many times, so I think I may have to make a trek there the next time I am in Paris. This place looks lovely—kind of an oasis in the city.

  3. I didn’t know that old building material was salvaged from abbeys in France and other European countries and used as a basis for this museum and probably other buildings in the US as well. Huge efforts to bring these materials over.

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Karen Warren

WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…


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