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Medieval Gallery Re-Opens at The Cloisters

New Skylight Is Highlight of Multi-Year Capital Project at Northern Manhattan Branch of Metropolitan Museum

The reconstructed 12th-century cloister from the French monastery of St.-Guilhem-le-Désert will return to view this fall – under a new skylight that will protect its fragile limestone carvings from the elements – at The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art's branch museum for medieval art in northern Manhattan. The enclosed courtyard gallery from St.-Guilhem will reopen to the public on October 7 after nearly two years of construction, cleaning, and reinstallation. Also returning to view in this space will be the Museum's collection of Italian Romanesque architectural sculpture.

The renovation and reinstallation was made possible through the generous support of The Alice Tully Foundation and The City of New York.

Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, commented: "Unique among American museums, The Cloisters presents outstanding examples of the art of the Middle Ages within an architectural setting that evokes the period. In an admirable blending of the medieval and the modern, the recent rehabilitation and grand reopening of the St.-Guilhem cloister preserves and highlights this extraordinary treasure from the past by means of the newest technology." The Museum's President, David M. McKinney continued: "The City of New York provided critical funding for the current phase of our capital project. Efforts like these could not take place without the City's contribution, and we are all extremely thankful for this generous support."

"Of the numerous projects included in the current capital improvement campaign, those in the St.-Guilhem Cloister are certainly the most visible," stated Peter Barnet, the Michel David-Weill Curator in Charge of the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. "Technological advances over the past six decades now enable us to design a creative solution to the challenge of protecting fragile 12th-century architecture from the extremes of New York City weather, while at the same time bringing carefully modulated light into the space."

Constructed in New York City's Fort Tryon Park in the 1930s to house part of the Metropolitan Museum's superb collection of medieval art, The Cloisters evokes the feeling of a medieval monastery without attempting to recreate any single site. Within The Cloisters are four reconstructed medieval cloisters – the Cuxa Cloister, the Trie Cloister, Bonnefont Cloister, and the St.-Guilhem Cloister – which give the museum its name.

The Benedictine abbey of St.-Guilhem-le-Désert, near Montpellier, France, was founded in 804 by Guilhem, Duke of Aquitaine and ancestor of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 (?)-1204). Although the lower level of the cloister was completed in the early 12th century, the first known reference to the upper story appeared only in 1206. The abbey, a regular stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, suffered severe damage during the Wars of Religion and the French Revolution. By about 1850, some architectural and sculptural members of the cloister were purchased by Pierre-Yon Vernière, a local judge, for display in his garden. In 1906, his heir sold the fragments, and some 140 elements – including most of the remaining columns, pilasters, and columns from the cloister's upper level – were purchased by the sculptor George Grey Barnard for reconstruction in New York. Subsequently, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased them for the Metropolitan Museum.

The delicate limestone used in the original structure required protection from the elements, and a flat glass-block roof and an opaque glass ceiling below it were in place when The Cloisters opened as a branch of the Metropolitan Museum in 1938. Now, as part of the ongoing capital campaign at The Cloisters, a new peaked skylight and the laylight below it will allow visitors to appreciate the marvelous contrast of light and shadow on the carved surfaces of the stone. Incorporated into the laylight, which is predominantly translucent, are transparent sections through which visitors may see the sky and clouds above them. Finally, a new fiber optic lighting system will illuminate the Italian Romanesque architectural sculpture and other reliefs installed on the cloister's perimeter walls. The Museum's collection of French and Italian Romanesque sculpture is considered to be the most important assemblage of this material in the United States.

Also included in the capital campaign at The Cloisters are the renovation and repair of the Unicorn Tapestry Gallery (completed in 1999) and the installation of climate control in the galleries, among other projects.

Gallery talks about the St.-Guilhem Cloister by Nancy Wu, Associate Museum Educator, have been scheduled for Saturday, December 6, at noon and 2 p.m. These are free with Museum admission. The supervising architect was Ann Kaufman Webster, Manager of Architecture and Historic Preservation, in the Construction Department at The Cloisters. Architectural design was by Einhorn Yaffe Prescott with construction administration by Easton Architects; lighting design was by Renfro Design Group; and construction was by Westerman Construction, Ahearn Holtzman Inc., Galaxy Glass, National States Electric, Ward Plumbing and Heating, John Estes Waterproofing and Restoration Services, ARCHA Technology, and Evergreene Painting Studios.

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