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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Building Stories: Contextualizing Architecture at the Cloisters

The Cloisters is a special place. This seemingly banal expression is in fact descriptive—the museum building is more than a shell “housing” a collection of medieval art, it incorporates medieval architectural elements that make itself a work of art. We can imagine the challenges facing the founding curators and architects who, with fragments from different sites, created a variety of spaces within the museum to evoke or suggest their original appearance, function, or character. These spaces, in turn, provide appropriate settings for the objects on display. There are, inevitably, fragments from sites that are destroyed, undocumented, or simply unknown; arranging them required studied consideration of their styles, dates, and geographical origins.

Take, for example, the twelfth-century cloister from the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa. Serving as the focal point for the main level of The Cloisters museum, it has at its center a garden bordered by covered, arcaded passageways (25.120.398–.954). This layout resembles a typical medieval monastic plan, in which a square or rectangular courtyard is circumscribed by a ring of rooms serving the daily needs of the monastic community. The reconstructed Cuxa Cloister comprises some 460 fragments; additional parts needed for the reconstruction—for example, there are 36 original capitals but only 12 shafts to support them—were replaced with the same pink Languedoc marble quarried specifically for this purpose. Only portions of the original cloister in Cuxa survived the French Revolution, yet its ruinous state was captured by artists at the height of Romanticism, providing valuable information for the layout of the Cuxa Cloister in New York to approximate the original appearance in France.

The chapter house from Notre-Dame at Pontaut, on the other hand, presents an ideal opportunity to display a historical structure (35.50). This self-contained room, used by monks for regular meetings since the twelfth century, became a stable after the Revolution until 1932, when it was purchased by a Parisian dealer. Photographs taken at the time show an upper story above the chapter house that might have been the monks’ dormitory; two of the three large openings of the facade were blocked, obviously to keep the animals inside. In the interior, a thick layer of dirt had obliterated the original floor, and the plaster vaults, especially the webs (the flat surfaces between the ribs), were in poor condition. Consequently, although the chapter house arrived in New York almost in its entirety, a modern floor was needed (by modeling after a twelfth-century floor tile), as were new webs (in reinforced concrete). The recent removal of the chapter house, aided by methodical documentation, rendered its reconstruction at The Cloisters free of guesswork. Its current location, which gives direct access to the Cuxa Cloister, follows the tradition of a typical monastic plan and highlights the important function of the chapter house.

Creating a cloister with sculptures from Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, a Benedictine monastery near Montpellier, required far more effort (25.120.1–.134). The fragility of the stones necessitated a skylight roof for protection. In contrast to the chapter house from Pontaut, which remained intact and in situ despite the dissolution of the monastery, the sculptures from the Saint-Guilhem cloister, a two-story structure, were largely removed following the French Revolution. The second story of the cloister, where most of our sculptures are believed to have come from, is usually dated to the turn of the thirteenth century. Most of the dispersed elements became the property of private citizens, as was the case with about 140 fragments found in nearby Aniane. This group was eventually purchased by George Grey Barnard, the American sculptor whose collection of architectural and sculptural fragments formed the core of The Cloisters museum. The only graphic record of the monastic complex before the Revolution is a pair of mid-seventeenth-century drawings now at the Archives Nationales in Paris. They show the location of the cloister, but not the precise placement of its individual columns and capitals. (Photographs taken when the elements were being prepared for the move to The Cloisters in 1936 demonstrate the nature of the Saint-Guilhem capitals, shafts, and bases as separate pieces of different designs.) Without historical evidence, determining the placement of historical pieces turns the reconstruction into a curatorial exercise.

There are other issues to be considered: how to raise the roof sufficiently high to re-create the airy feeling of an open-air courtyard, and how to envision the walkways surrounding it. For anything that needed to be designed from scratch, historical precedents were always sought for inspiration: the twelfth-century cloister of Saint-Trophîme in Arles, with a substantial parapet wall above the arcades and a prominent molding under a row of small slits, provided the solution. Not only did this design effectively lift the skylight, it also alludes to the two-story elevation of the original cloister in Saint-Guilhem. Saint-Trophîme’s barrel-vaulted cloister walks, accentuated with robust transverse arches, are “paraphrased” in New York as well (25.120.1–.134). Transparent panels of the new skylight (completed in 2003) allow abundant light into the interior. The contrast between the sun-lit courtyard and the shaded walkway replicates exactly the effect to be experienced in an open-air cloister.

“Precedent” is a word frequently encountered in the archives detailing The Cloisters’ construction history. When found in actual monuments, precedents helped to create historically informed contexts for the many orphaned architectural elements from disparate locations. In the Early Gothic Hall, focus is given to the three limestone windows found in Normandy and are thought by some to have come from the priory of La Trinité in Beaumont-le-Roger (35.143.1–.3). Measuring about fifteen feet high, the apexes of these windows almost reach the modern beamed ceiling; spanning across the short end of this gallery is a modern pointed arch, its apex also touching the ceiling. This is a design inspired by similar features in the Knights Hall (Salle des Chevaliers), in one of the city gates of the fortified town of Carcassonne. In fact, during the construction period, this gallery was referred to as the “Carcassonne Room.” Precedents aside, the Early Gothic Hall has become a showcase for stained glass and window traceries; altogether, fifteen major Gothic monuments from France, England, and Germany are represented here in stained glass. The three limestone windows from Normandy are joined by a fourth from central France to provide an overview of the vocabulary used for designing traceries in the thirteenth century. Both the cruder “plate tracery” and the more intricate “bar tracery” are on display in this gallery filled with vestiges from grand edifices.

The intimate gallery known as the Merode Room also benefits from works of art that contributed to its character. When The Cloisters opened in 1938, this gallery was called the “Spanish Room,” named after the late fifteenth-century painted wooden ceiling that determined the size of the room. A pair of slender windows found in a medieval building in Barcelona was thus copied for the windows of this gallery. Heavy velvet curtains and large tapestries further enhanced the period look of what would have been a typical fifteenth-century interior. Soon after 1956, when the Merode Altarpiece was purchased (56.70), the “Spanish Room” was transformed with furnishings and objects similar to those depicted in the central panel of the triptych: window shutters replaced the velvet curtains, stained-glass roundels were added to the windows, a candlestick bracket juts out from the wall, a brass laver and a bronze candlestick stand nearby, and a wooden bench is carved with animal finials just like those in the painting. Here the architecture, furnishing, and the triptych are in constant dialogue, putting one another in context. The placement of the painting in this gallery suggests a private devotional space found in a typical northern European home of the late Middle Ages; the gallery, in turn, closely approximates the interior of the central scene. As to providing a context for the objects on display, it is hard to find a better example than the Merode Room.

There are, to this date, architectural elements at The Cloisters whose original locations are only beginning to come to light. From the time it entered the collection, a doorway in the Romanesque Hall had been attributed, on stylistic grounds, to the Loire Valley of the twelfth century; nothing more was known about it. By accident, an old postcard was brought to our attention recently, not only showing the portal in a rather awkward location but also identifying its provenance. Further research reveals that it came from a twelfth-century church in Coulangé. The church was sold in 1844, and at an unknown date its portal was moved to a nearby commune, as shown on the postcard. Sometime after 1922, it was moved again and soon appeared at George Grey Barnard’s old Cloisters Museum, the collection that was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum in 1925 and later moved to The Cloisters’ present location, which opened in 1938.

The challenges posed by dispersed fragments often yield satisfying results not only for curators but for visitors. The Cloisters museum owes its tranquil atmosphere and informed display to the thoughts and attention given to the individual members of its structure. Every stone at The Cloisters tells stories—of the past, and of the present.