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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.