The Cloisters

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1938

One of the most unusual museums in New York City, or anywhere in America, is The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art located in far northern Manhattan. The structure is a unified assemblage of pieces of five separate medieval monasteries that were moved from France to the United States. The site is surrounded by elaborate gardens built precisely as described in medieval manuscripts, and housed inside are several thousand priceless objects created during the Middle Ages, including tapestries, manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, liturgical objects, ivory sculptures, and furniture.

The Cloisters is the product of one generous man: John Rockefeller Jr., who drove the idea, and its execution, and provided nearly all of the resources. It began when Rockefeller purchased for the Met the remarkable collection of medieval art assembled by George Barnard. It soon became clear some special place would be needed to display the objects. So Rockefeller spent $6 million to acquire a large stretch of land and create a park overlooking the Hudson River in upper Manhattan (including portions of New Jersey on the opposite shore to protect the views). He donated the park to the city, and situated The Cloisters at its heart. The philanthropist hired architect Charles Collens to create a unified design that incorporated elements from the five cloistered abbeys (dating from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries), after they had been taken apart, stone by stone, and transported to the U.S.

The complex amalgamation and rebuilding, then landscaping and decorating, took place during the 1930s and cost Rockefeller $16 million in Depression-era currency. To cap the undertaking, Rockefeller donated works from his own collection, including the famous “Hunt of the Unicorn” Netherlandish tapestries. He also provided an endowment that allows the institution to continue to acquire objects illustrating the many remarkable qualities of life in medieval Europe.

(Photo by Mat McDermott)