I decided to spend my last day in New York at The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is constructed of bits and pieces of four cloisters from southern France - Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, Trie-surBaise and elements once thought to have come from Bonnefont-en-Comminges. It houses a large portion of the museum's medieval Gothic and Romanesque collections.
The core of the collection was purchased from George Grey Barnard, an American sculptor who lived for a time near Fontainebleau in France and used his earnings to acquire as much medieval art as he could. In the early 20th century there were no laws prohibiting the purchase or export of such artwork, most of which had been separated from its original location during the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution. But, when the French government heard of Barnard's activities, they initiated legislation to prevent such exports. So Barnard hurriedly shipped his entire collection to New York.
Barnard opened a museum featuring his collection in 1914 and declared that revenues would be used for the benefit of widows and orphans of French sculptors. But, his energies and most of his fortune were soon diverted into a project for a national peace memorial (alas, that was never built). In 1925, John D. Rockefeller Jr. provided enough funds to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to purchase Barnard's entire collection. Rockefeller also purchased a tract of land that is now Fort Tryon Park, setting aside four acres for the construction of The Cloisters.
I caught the subway right after breakfast because I knew it would take over an hour and a half to get to the museum. Once again the subway repairs caused a detour to the Times Square station before I could catch the A express train to the Dyckman street station in north Manhattan. When I finally arrived, I emerged from the subway and immediately saw the monastery-like structure on the top of a knob overlooking the Hudson River. I didn't realize it was going to be another one of those heart-pounding Foix Castle-type climbs to the main entrance. I wish I had read the directions on The Cloisters website as it suggests you walk down Margaret Corbin Drive for ten minutes to get to the stop for the M4 bus that will take you to the summit. Instead, following Google Maps instructions, I ascended the hill the old fashioned way - by hiking up a series of steep ramps that switch back and forth, very much like I encountered at Foix Castle in southern France last year. Needless to say I had to stop to rest several times and was quite winded by the time I reached the entrance.
As I began making my way through the galleries, I was surprised that the first few rooms were almost empty - apparently intended to provide examples of sacred spaces found in medieval churches. I thought to myself that it wouldn't take long to work my way through this museum. But then I reached a gallery filled with tomb effigies and from that point on the spaces were filled with artifacts and artwork.
Tomb effigies are some of my favorite types of medieval art. The sculpture of the deceased individuals are life-sized and, although their features are usually somewhat stylized, its as if you are meeting a person from the Middle Ages face to face. The museum had several excellent examples on display including a 12th century knight who had fought in the Crusades complete with chain mail and sword belt.
Another gallery included a wonderful collection of aquamaniles, another of my favorite types of medieval art. Aquamaniles are essentially ornate water vessels that were used to ritually wash hands during liturgical and secular ceremonies. They are often in the form of mythical animals although one I photographed over at the main Metropolitan Museum in 2007 was whimsical depicting Aristotle being ridden like a pony by his girlfriend.
Of course the religious sculptures in the Cloisters were beautifully detailed as were the amazing stained glass panels that graced almost every room. In the section designated as The Treasury there were exquisite carved ivory panels and triptychs and gilded and bejeweled communion vessels.
Several of the interior rooms were draped with tapestries. The first collection I saw depicted scenes of kings and conquerors. Of course during the Middle Ages, artists did not worry about historical accuracy so scenes of Alexander the Great did not resemble him at all and he was dressed in 12th century garb. One of the last galleries I entered was covered with tapestries depicting scenes of hunting and killing ornate unicorns - beautiful but tragic.
There were so many objects to photograph that I worked straight through lunch. Needless to say, by the time I finally reached the gift shop my shoulders ached from lifting the camera up and down so much, especially since many of the pieces are displayed high on the walls. I collected my coat from the coat checker and groaned thinking about that long walk back down the hill. But as I opened the door and walked outside into the courtyard, I noticed the M4 bus. I remembered reading about the M4 going between The Cloisters and the main Met and knew I could catch the subway at 86th street if I could get back to the Met. So on impulse, I boarded the bus. (My "all you can eat" 7-day subway pass also worked on the bus.)
Obviously it took me a lot longer to get across town on the bus with all of the stops but it also gave me an opportunity to see the various ethnic neighborhoods in New York. It was dark by the time I arrived back at the main Met but the 86th street subway station was only about five blocks away and I knew how to get there.
I caught the subway and transferred to the R Line at the Atlantic Ave station. Soon I was back at my hotel although by then I was starving. I was too tired to venture out to a restaurant so I decided to order a "real" New York pizza from the delivery place that serviced the hotel. I called them and ordered a small pie - their Brother's special - that was sort of a combination that included meatballs. I wasn't too sure about the meatballs but thought, what the heck! When it arrived I was astounded. The "small" pie was as big as a family size back home! So I took what I wanted and called downstairs to see if the front desk clerks would like some fresh hot pizza. They were thrilled!
I topped my pizza off with what was left of the New York cheesecake from the day before so was well fortified to start repacking my suitcase. Tomorrow I've arranged for an airport shuttle to JFK then its home again, home again!