First a little mood music:
If you clicked into the blue music link above – you were treated to a snippet of the Pomerium, a series of Passion and Resurrection Motets of the Renaissance. Trivia: In the earliest years of the Catholic Church, those wishing to be baptised had a period of penitential preparation that took 40 days – corresponding with Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness and Noah’s 40 days in the flood. Including Sundays the first of the 40 penitential days was calculated to fall 46 days before Easter, on Ash Wednesday. The English-speaking world knows this six and one half week period as Lent; its Latin name it Quadragesima (40 days).
This background serves as introduction to a magnificent concert I attended in The Cloisters, which we will visit in more detail in just a bit. First the concert – a soaring and quite moving experience given by an amazingly talented group of singers – 5 sopranos, 2 mezzo-sopranos, 1 counter- tenor, 3 tenors, 2 baritones and 2 basses. Their voices intertwined and harmonized and counterbalanced in such crystalline pureness, it felt surely that angels had entered the Fuentiduena Chapel 12th century apse:
The pieces sung by this choir ranged from ancient Gregorian chants to polyphonic elaborations – representing the unfolding of passiontide in which intricate musical textures yield to more stark plain chant – a repertory of Renaissance music celebrating Christ’s resurrection. The pure tones of this group enhanced no doubt by the excellent acoustics of the sanctuary – was indeed soul uplifting – we left at peace and refreshed and ready to explore the marvel that is The Cloisters.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, The Cloisters is actually an extension of the New York MET, located in Fort Tryon Park in Northern Manhattan, spanning 4 acres. The Cloisters Museum and Gardens, which opened in 1938 with the generous help of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., is devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe and was assembled from architectural elements, both domestic and religious, that largely date from the twelfth through the fifteenth century:
The Museum building itself, shown at the top of this post, is not a copy of any specific medieval structure but rather is an ensemble with a deliberate combination of ecclesiastical and secular spaces arranged in chronological order. Elements from medieval cloisters and other sites in Europe have been incorporated into the fabric of the building.
Features of The Cloisters include: gardens planted according to horticultural information found in medieval treatises and poetry, garden documents and herbals, and medieval works of art such as tapestries, stained-glass windows, metal and wood workings, and breath-taking hand written and designed manuscripts. With over 2000 works of art – it was impossible to cover everything in one day- but I will give you the quick review of some highlights:
Unicorn Tapestries – One of my favorite exhibits – seven hangings which were donated from Rockefeller’s own private collection. There are seven individual hangings which are considered the most beautiful and complex works of art from the late Middle Ages that survive. Woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads, the tapestries vividly depict scenes associated with a hunt for the elusive, magical unicorn.
This is the tapestry I like best, as it depicts a contented unicorn relaxing in an enclosed area:
The others Unicorn Tapestries rather graphically depict the hunt and destruction of these beautiful, even if mystical creatures:
Medieval Medicinal Gardens – It was intriguing to see actual plants that heretofore I had only read about in medieval stories- one could almost imagine witched collecting these plants before concocting a potent brew:
Also, my cousin and I were fascinated by this pear tree which appeared to have been the medieval version of a bonsai tree (growth- manipulated): Indeed, a little research proved us right. It is called an Espaliered Pear Tree – espalier is a noun describing : plant (as a fruit tree) trained to grow flat against a support such as a wall. Origin: French, ultimately from Italian: spalla “shoulder,” from Late Latin: spatula “shoulder blade”. Pretty cool, right?
And, as long as we were outdoors, we also enjoyed a quick route around the Bonnefont Cloister and Garden with elements taken from medieval monasteries:
Stained Glass – An exhibition of stained glass from England’s Canterbury Cathedral features six Romanesque-period windows that had never left the cathedral since their creation in 1178-90. It struck me that one piece was the first example I had ever seen of a stained glass picture depicting people of varying races:
Illustrated Manuscripts – The books here were simply exquisite – imagine the time and care taken to write and illustrate these masterpieces. Here is a Book of Hours, circa 1270, made of tempera and gold ink on parchment. The prayers and scriptures in this book were read at regular intervals throughout the 24 hours of the day:
And finally, imagine the power and awe that this lectern instilled in the congregants listening to the priest’s exhortations:
All in all, this was a magical journey into the past – all within a half hour of my home. Even the restaurant that we ate in afterwards (Leaf Restaurant – built on a hill in Tryon Park within walking distance of The Cloisters – has beautiful vistas of the park) wafted the scent of a begone time – although the food thankfully was quite up-to-date and delicious.
This trip was taken pre-pandemic