Marvels of Man and Nature at The Cloisters

Heaven seems closer at The Cloisters   

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Looking for a bit of heaven?  No need to leave this life, or even Manhattan. A trip to The Cloisters will get you so close you won’t be able to tell if you’ve passed through the portals of the museum or the pearly gates, themselves.

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The gorgeous Merode Altarpiece has communicated piety, simplicity and God’s glory for over 600 years  

Particularly when spring is bestowing her gifts and forsythias spread their blossoms like a young girl shaking out long, blonde curls, a visit to the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art focused on medieval art and architecture is pure delight. The Cloister gardens are green and filled with daffodils, apple blossoms, grape hyacinths, and herbs. Sparrows sing and scrabble over bits of twig as they build nests among the time worn terracotta tiles, and the place (a pastiche of many places joined together) is filled with beauty amidst quietude, peace and a sense of renewal.

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Timelessness and the joys of the season coexist at The Cloisters  

Considering the countless footsteps that have worn smooth the stone steps, sensing the silently echoing presence of tonsured monks in sandals who lived and prayed in these spaces makes one feel small against the stretch of hundreds of years, the way we feel small at the edge of the ocean or gazing at the night sky. Tiny, but connected to something immense. The Cloisters is a singular place in a bustling city that can bring us to the distant past and help us to be fully in the present at the same time.

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The medieval artist who carved this Madonna and baby Jesus captured a lively pose    

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The famed Unicorn Tapestries fill a hall at The Cloisters  

There’s never been a better time to make the journey.  In addition to the glories of spring, an astonishingly beautiful exhibition, “Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures,” is on view through May 21st. Four dozen extremely delicate and rare miniature boxwood carvings from the middle ages have been gathered together by Dr. Barbara Drake Boehm, Paul and Jill Ruddock, Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters, in an exhibition co-organized by the Rijksmuseum and the Art Gallery of Ontario. Beheld and cherished as objects of wonder by European kings and queens, these marvels of engineering and artistry were mostly made in the Netherlands in the 1500s.  They are devotional objects depicting scenes from the Bible that were fashioned by incredibly skilled artists into tiny altars, rosary or prayer beads and even tiny coffins, complete with even tinier skeletons. To compound the marvels, the artists circumscribed each scene with minutely carved inscriptions.

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An exquisite carved rosary that once belonged to King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon is a highlight of “Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures”  

It’s hard to believe human hands could create something so complex and compelling within the confines of a sphere of carved wood no larger than a small egg.  Castled landscapes, forests with trees and animals, and, in the Met’s own rosary bead a crucifixion scene with three crosses, soldiers, horses, and mourners, have been carved into tiny, yet breathtaking sculptures. In fact, it’s partly because they’re so tiny that they are so amazing.

Dr. Boehm states in her exhibition description, “Over the course of more than 500 years these works of art have repeatedly been described as “ingenious,” “artful,” “exquisite,” and “subtle.” Even so, no adjective has ever been adequate to express the sense of wonder and amazement that the miniatures elicit.” Indeed, gasps were heard throughout the gallery. You can get a sense of these incredible objects from a video on the Met’s website.

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The sun and moon and a field of tiny plants and flowers decorate this unique crucifixion scene at The Cloisters   

“Small Wonders” is reason enough to visit The Cloisters, but their exquisite collection of  paintings, sculptures, tapestries and illuminated manuscripts; the stunning stained glass windows; and the gardens and the architectural elements that recreate a sense of medieval Europe, combine to make an experience that transcends everyday life and transports the viewer across time and place all while never leaving the city.

Photos by Adel Gorgy