Sacred or Secular, Old or New? The Cloisters in New York

What could possibly be modern about medieval architecture?

In New York, at the very top of Manhattan in a region of the island that used to be referred to as ‘God’s thumb’, there’s a huge park. Within Fort Tryon Park sits one of the most important collections of medieval art, sculpture architecture in the world. This is The Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This year it’s celebrating its 75th anniversary with two very different exhibitions. One is focused on a cluster of its most precious items: the unicorn tapestries produced in France in the fifteenth century. The other is the first contemporary art exhibition that The Cloisters has ever displayed, Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet. It consists of forty speakers configured in a circle, each of which plays a single part from the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis’ forty-part motet Spem in Alium (c. 1570). The music was composed for a sacred space, albeit a British one, so it’s fitting and evocative to install this sound art within the Fuentidueña Chapel, a Spanish medieval chapel brought to New York and erected stone by stone within Fort Tryon Park in the 1950s.

Janet Cardiff, Forty Part Motet, 2001, installation in Fuentiduena Chapel at The Cloisters, New York, 2013. Photo: Ayla Lepine.

Janet Cardiff, Forty Part Motet, 2001, installation in Fuentiduena Chapel at The Cloisters, New York, 2013. Photo: Ayla Lepine.

When I first started to research The Cloisters, I began by tracing the career history of its supervising architect, Charles Collens. Collens was part of a Boston architectural firm, Allen, Collens and Willis. Their offices were busy and successful, and Collens’ clients included the wealthy art collector and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. Most of Collens’ designs in the first years of the twentieth century were in the Gothic style, and his plans for churches, civic sites, and university buildings often evoked the Middle Ages through form, detail and materials, and blended these medievalist elements with the latest technology and mod cons. Rockefeller’s projects in New York, which include the soaring Riverside Church and the vast Art Deco Rockefeller Center in central Manhattan, were focused on public service, capitalist expansion, and culture.

The Cloisters was different, however. The collection of medieval statues and French architectural elements had a chequered history. The American sculptor George Grey Barnard spent several years in France amassing hundreds of objects, from large portions of monastic buildings to smaller wood and marble statues. Some came through art dealers in Paris, and he also sourced many himself – often from sites abandoned since the French Revolution – as he travelled around the country looking for opportunities to expand his collection. When Barnard relocated to New York, he opened his collection to the public while attempting to sell large numbers of his objects to major American museums. Rockefeller became interested in Barnard’s material and, after much negotiation, agreed to purchase the bulk of Barnard’s collection. Rockefeller also bought what is now Fort Tryon Park and commissioned the Olmsted firm, who had also designed Central Park, to landscape it prior to handing it over to the city of New York. The Cloisters were to be the centrepiece of the park, high on a hilltop overlooking the Palisades across the river in New Jersey. Rockefeller purchased a section of these distant cliffs too, to protect them from future development so that views from The Cloisters to surrounding natural forms would be free from evidence of the busy metropolis which was so close by. This was a fantasy medieval world for modern New York, where visitors could experience the art and architecture of the Middle Ages only a few blocks from the Subway.

Collens’ design, which integrated sections of medieval cloisters with new stone, amplified a fairly recent museum trend: the period room. The tower for The Cloisters was based on St Michel de Cuxa, one of the monasteries whose Romanesque cloister is a major part of The Cloisters collection. The site was a fusion of styles, places, and times; it was meant to function as a microcosm of the Middle Ages as a whole. This immersive strategy for displaying objects became increasingly popular for public collections in the United States in a quest for an atmosphere – however problematic – of historical authenticity. Building context around objects that evoked a visitor’s experience of another time and place was a new kind of curatorial method. The Cloisters promoted itself as simultaneously sacred and secular, romantic and scholarly.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1976. Photo: Peter H. Dreyer. Peter H. Dreyer slide collection, Collection #9800.007, City of Boston Archives, Boston.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1976. Photo: Peter H. Dreyer. Peter H. Dreyer slide collection, Collection #9800.007, City of Boston Archives, Boston.

The architectural historian Paul Goldberger described The Cloisters as ‘a place of illusion’ and one of the ‘finest non-museum museums anywhere in the world.’ What does ‘non-museum’ mean for a place like The Cloisters? In part, the phrase suggests that the presentation of the collection as an evocation of its medieval history – albeit across many different places and a few centuries – attempts to situate the visitor in a medievalising world that does its best to ignore the present, the urban fabric of New York, and the secular nature of museums. This idea isn’t timeless at all; it’s cutting edge museum theory from the 1900s that can trace its lineage back to house museums and private collections including the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and even Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House on the fringes of London.

How does this history and museology impact visitors who come to hear Janet Cardiff’s sound installation this autumn? Are the past and present colliding in projects like this in new ways? Is the Fuentidueña Chapel at The Cloisters a sacred or a secular space? It’s displaced, deconsecrated, and in the permanent collection of one of the world’s largest and most important museums. And yet, its setting within the leafy quiet parkland at the top of Manhattan encourages visitors to forget that these stones are no longer the property of a monastery, but of an art collection. Are the spaces at The Cloisters sacred? For some, perhaps they are. For others, they aren’t. It’s this ambiguity and its history since The Cloisters opened in 1938 that interests me the most.

Dr Ayla Lepine (Lecturer, Art History, University of Nottingham)

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3 responses to “Sacred or Secular, Old or New? The Cloisters in New York

  1. Pingback: Eight Hours in NYC – Little Histories·

  2. Pingback: Eight Hours in NYC·

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