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Memories of a Visit to the Medieval Festival in Fort Tryon Park

A view of The Met Cloisters behind the trees that surround the grounds

Mid-September in New York always reminds me of the medieval festival that is held on the grounds of Fort Tryon Park surrounding The Met Cloisters each fall, hosted by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the Washington Heights and Inwood Development Corporation. My first visit to the festival harks back to fall 1991, which was both my first fall living in New York and my first semester in graduate school. Although a somewhat distant memory at this point, I do remember enjoying a beautiful day in the park despite the rather anachronistic garb worn by some visitors, which included garbage-can tops used as breastplates for homemade suits of armor! Of course, the highlight of that long-ago day was visiting The Met Cloisters and wandering the galleries on a fall afternoon.

Medieval festivals associated with the park and The Met Cloisters, both inside and outside of the Museum's courtyard walls, have a long history. During the 1950s, seven events geared for the children of Museum Members were organized by The Met's Junior Museum.[1] The first one, which took place on May 26, 1951, allowed children to participate in a number of activities, including glass blowing and an alchemical laboratory. Even James J. Rorimer, then-director of The Met Cloisters, participated in this event, wearing the robes and mitre of a medieval bishop. Later festivals utilized the grounds of the park.[2]

Left: An alchemical laboratory, 1951. Right: James Rorimer dressed as a medieval bishop, 1951

As the parent of two young children, the annual medieval festival in Fort Tryon Park still provides an enchanting atmosphere and endless enjoyment for a young family. On our last visit, we participated in a parade that was led by a dragon, viewed a falconry demonstration, and watched men clad in armor enact mock battles. Dressed in his Halloween costume, my six-year-old son was delighted by all the activities that were offered, such as learning to play with juggling sticks and observing a blacksmith at his forge.

My children, Liam and Aurora, enjoying the medieval festival. Photos by Craig Feder

After exploring the festival, we strolled through the galleries of The Met Cloisters as a family. Both my son and daughter were fascinated by the Spanish frescoes depicting a lion and a dragon from the chapter house of the monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza, near Burgos, and the fantastical beast depicted in a mid-15th-century tapestry fragment. Introducing them to this extraordinary collection wasn't complete without showing them depictions of knights in combat, such as those carved on a tiny ivory game piece with Hercules slaying the three-headed Geryon that was made in 12th-century Germany.

Left: Lion, after 1200. Made in Burgos, Castile-León, Spain. Fresco, mounted on canvas; Overall: 10 ft. 11 in. x 11 ft. (332.7 x 335.3 cm) Overall (top panel): 83 x 132 in. (210.8 x 335.3 cm) Overall (lower panel): 48 x 132 in. (121.9 x 335.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1931 (31.38.1a, b). Right: Game piece with Hercules slaying the three-headed Geryon, ca. 1150. Made in Cologne, Germany. Ivory; Overall: 2 3/4 in. (7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1970 (1970.324.4)

The large painted 15th-century sculpture of the warrior-archangel Michael dressed in armor and trampling the dragon also impressed them with its detailed and painted depiction of late medieval armor. We ended our visit by looking at the falcon's bath, a sumptuous early 15th-century tapestry woven in the southern Netherlands. Having seen several types of hunting birds at the festival earlier in the morning, the kids were thrilled to locate the falcon and other birds depicted in the magnificent tapestry.

For those of you considering a family trip to this year's festival this Sunday, September 18, don't miss the opportunity to visit the fabulous collection of medieval art on display at The Met Cloisters. It's right there in Fort Tryon Park waiting for your kids to discover it.

Visitors entering The Met Cloisters on a sunny day

[1] For more on these events, which took place in the Museum's courtyard, see Emma Wegner's "'Round Table Capers': Medieval Festivals in the 1950s."

[2] "When Bold Knights Lanced and Unicorns Pranced," a video created for the summer 1974 festival for children, illustrates how the festival evolved over the decades.

Related Event
Medieval Festival in Fort Tryon Park
Sunday, September 18, 11:30 am–6 pm
The Met Cloisters - Main Hall
Free with Museum admission

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