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Press release

The Cloisters: A History

The Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is America's only museum dedicated exclusively to the art of the Middle Ages. Picturesquely overlooking the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan, the Museum derives its name from the portions of five medieval cloisters incorporated into a modern museum structure. Not replicating any one particular medieval building type or setting, but rather designed to evoke the architecture of the later Middle Ages, The Cloisters creates an integrated and harmonious context in which visitors can experience the rich tradition of medieval artistic production, including metalwork, painting, sculpture, and textiles. By definition, a cloister consists of a covered walkway surrounding a large open courtyard providing access to other monastic buildings. Similarly, the museum's cloisters act as passageways to galleries; and they provide as inviting a place for rest and contemplation for visitors as they often did in their original monastic settings.

Any history of The Cloisters must begin with George Grey Barnard (1863-1938). A student of Rodin, Barnard was a prominent American sculptor. While working in rural France, Barnard supplemented his income by locating and selling medieval sculpture and architectural fragments that had made their way into the hands of local landowners over several centuries of political and religious upheaval. A romantic figure, Barnard viewed himself as a modern-day adventurer embellishing the stories of his many finds with tall tales of discovery.

Barnard moved back to the United States on the eve of World War I and, at the northern tip of Manhattan, opened a museum housing his own collection of medieval art. His passionate aim was to enable Americans to see and learn about art from the Middle Ages, and especially for young American sculptors to be inspired by what he called "the patient Gothic chisel." He called his installation George Grey Barnard's Cloisters, but his church-like brick structure did little to present the collection of architectural fragments and works of art in a historically correct context. Rather, it expressed the collector's poetic and very personal interpretation of the Middle Ages. It was, however, a path-breaking and influential installation, for it represented the first display of its kind of medieval art in America.

When Barnard's Cloisters was offered for sale in 1924, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960) provided funds that enabled The Metropolitan Museum of Art to purchase the museum and its collections. Rockefeller also presented the Museum with more than 40 of his own medieval works of art. Rockefeller, like many of his contemporaries, possessed a fascination with the past. The expert artistry of medieval art as well as its innate spirituality strongly appealed to this philanthropist and collector.

By 1927, the Metropolitan Museum decided a larger building was needed for its branch museum – one that would exhibit its collection in a more scholarly fashion. With visionary foresight, Rockefeller offered to finance the conversion of 66.5 acres of land just north of Barnard's museum into a public park, today's Fort Tryon Park, with a new Cloisters as its centerpiece. To ensure the beauty of this setting, Rockefeller donated additional land to the state of New Jersey to be incorporated into the Palisades park on the opposite bank of the Hudson River.

The three men who, together with Rockefeller, gave shape to the present museum were Charles Collens (1873-1956), Joseph Breck (1885-1933), and James Rorimer (1905-1966). Guided by Barnard's pioneering first example, they brought a new level of scholarship and expertise to the project. Collens, one of the leading practitioners of the Neo-Gothic style and best known for his design of Manhattan's Riverside Church, was chosen as the architect. Eschewing a slavish replication of an actual medieval structure, Collens produced a building that speaks of the Middle Ages through its paraphrasing of medieval proportions and styles. Breck, a curator of decorative arts as well as assistant director of the Metropolitan, was primarily responsible for the museum's interior. Balancing Collens' interpretation with strict attention to historical accuracy, Breck created in the galleries a clear and logical flow from the Romanesque (ca. 1000-1150/1200) through the Gothic periods (ca. 1150-1520). Involved in the project early on, Rorimer replaced Breck after the latter's sudden death in 1933. With curatorial genius and adroit negotiating skills, Rorimer worked hand in hand with Rockefeller and took the museum through its final stages of construction.

While works from Barnard's Cloisters, together with gifts donated by Rockefeller such as the renowned set of tapestries depicting the hunt of the unicorn, remain at the heart of The Cloisters, the museum continues to expand its collection of medieval art – both in diversity and in scope. Masterpieces of painting, such as Robert Campin's Annunciation Triptych (also known as the Mérode Altarpiece), the tiny prayer book once owned by the queen of France, the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, and the Austrian stained-glass windows from the castle chapel at Ebreichsdorf, as well as remarkable works in sculpture, such as the Cloisters Ivory Cross, together with recent acquisitions such as the late-13th-century head from the region of Strasbourg on the upper Rhine, all testify to the continued vitality of the Museum's commitment to expanding understanding of medieval art.

The Cloisters is also renowned for its three cloister gardens – Cuxa, Bonnefont, and Trie. Designed as an integral feature when the Museum opened in 1938, they continue to enhance the setting in which the Museum's collection of medieval art is displayed and the visitor's understanding of medieval life.

In May 2001, two new visitor amenities – an Audio Guide and a café – were introduced for the first time at The Cloisters.

Featuring the voices of Museum curators, conservators, educators, and horticulturists and period music, the Cloisters Audio Guide includes approximately two hours of random access programming about the history of the Cloisters, its architecture, its gardens, and some 70 works of art. A tour of collection highlights is available in Spanish and French, as is a family tour for younger visitors. Highlights will be offered in German, as well, later this year.

The Audio Guide is produced in collaboration with Antenna Audio, the leading provider of audio programming for museums and historic sites around the world.

The Audio Guide is sponsored by Bloomberg.

The café at The Cloisters is open during Museum hours, rain or shine, from May through October. A light menu of sandwiches, desserts, and coffee is served.

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May 15, 2006

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