Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Gothic Cloisters of Manhattan

The Cloister Museum, a branch of the Met, exists because of the financial backing and vision of millionaire, John D. Rockefeller Jr., a young Harvard grad curator, James R. Rorimer, and a sculptor trying to fund his art projects by dealing antique building fragments. In the Washington Heights Fort Tryon Park, French an assemblage of medieval period structures have been combined with gray stone from Connecticut to mimic an imaginary Gothic presence in upper Manhattan.

This story of this fabricated Gothic Cloister takes place in an idyllic setting: a landscape of old growth forest and ivy to feed the fantasy. The building site is on a 4 acre section of the 56 acres of woods donated by Rockefeller. The Cloisters were fittingly positioned atop a steep hill overlooking the Hudson River. The visitors approach must be what final moments of pilgrimage are like, the Cloisters come into view, and the slow steep climb amplifies the importance of the moment as you approach.

The construction project was shaped by a reverence for materials which signified high standards of European craftsmanship. The Cloisters represent the wishes of the extremely rich to inform the intellect of the middle class visitors. Rockefeller and the Met chose to do this with an uninterrupted authentic “experience”… an afternoon to take in or visually consume the signs of wealth, power and sanctity within. The cloisters and the collection perpetuate the myth of an American “royalty” who ordained its construction.


Though the function of this museum is to step back temporally into a humble sanctuary where men of the cloth were praying for the souls of the impoverished, in actual experience the Cloisters are host to fabulous showrooms of gold chalices, the Unicorn tapestries, jewelry, a cape and staff befitting the pope, ornate wood carvings of saints and biblical scenes, and furniture dating from the 13th – 15th centuries.
The contradiction of the gray exterior of the structure and priceless medieval materials within emphasize the hypocrisy of the function of the building. A medieval cloister brought into existence around the idea of 13th century Europe, but disassociated from the nearby real time poverty of the Great Depression occurring in the US; plus being situated in the middle of woodlands to remove the museum from the modern urban setting that may have reminded the visitor of where they actually were.

As a visitor to this world, I overlooked the artificial curation of ornate windows floating in plaster with a placard stating “Window” and became lost in the perceived authenticity of wood ceiling beams, knight’s tombs, the medieval herb garden and anything that fed the senses of reality. Ultimately, I gave into the myth constructed by material markers.
Tomkins, Calvin
1970  The Cloisters ... The Cloisters ... The Cloisters ... The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 28(7): 308–320.



Charles Garceau said...

This reminds me of Barthe's reference to wrestling as a performance for spectators that don't wish to see actual suffering, and enjoy the perfection of an iconography.

Becky Fisher said...

Lindsey - I really enjoyed your post!
I also visited the Cloisters for the first time this month so it was fun to read about someone else's first experience. In a lot of ways, I am still grappling with everything going on up there. It is a complicated place!
I wanted to comment on a certain statement of yours that was particularly interesting to me:
"The cloisters and the collection perpetuate the myth of an American "royalty" who ordained its construction."
This resonates strongly with Barthes' (Myth Today) argument that the bourgeoisie build up myths. In this case, about the myth is about themselves as American "royalty".
I really appreciated that you referred to the curation as artificial. I definitely felt that the myth of the Cloisters is magnified by the fact that all of objects of grandeur are placed together on a hilltop and/or pedestal above Manhattan. The objects are real and many are from "real" rich people. You can "real"ly go see them, but they will forever be extremely out of reach. For me, this is just like Barthes' discussion of lavish dinners portrayed in Elle magazine that were primarily purchased by people who could not afford such a banquet.