Heaven seems closer at The Cloisters
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.
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.
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.
The medieval artist who carved this Madonna and baby Jesus captured a lively pose
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.
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.
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
Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven, a landmark exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, co-curated by Barbara Drake Boehm, the Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters, and Melanie Holcomb, Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, runs through January 8th. The stunning works in the exhibition give voice to the various religious and cultural traditions that have defined Jerusalem through the ages. There are some 200 spectacular works of art from 60 international collections included. What follow are some of my visions, responses and reflections. To fully experience the glory of these works, visit the exhibition and form your own.
The exhibition begins with the quote “Jerusalem has been chosen and sanctified by God, trodden by His feet, honored by angels and frequented by every people under heaven.” Jacques de Vitry (ca. 1160/70–1240), bishop of Acre in the Holy Land.
All texts are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Stavelot Triptych (Top Photo)
Gilded copper with champlevé and cloisonné enamel, silver, émail brun, and semiprecious stones Ca. 1156–58, Meuse River valley, Morgan Library and Museum, New York
Gold and enamel here ennoble the most precious of relics, wood from the Cross of Jesus. The medallions on the left wing stress the importance of the Cross to the history of Christian Europe. They tell of the conversion of Constantine (ca. 273–337), the first Christian emperor, a consequence of his success in battle under the standard of the Cross. The medallions at right detail his mother Helena’s successful search for the Cross in Jerusalem. The triptych was created in northern Europe, a realm that feared correctly that it was on the verge of losing the hard-won prize of Jerusalem. The churchman generally considered the patron of the triptych, Wibald (1098–1153), abbot of Stavelot, played a key role within a network of Crusader leaders.
Bottle with Christian Scenes
Glass, gold, and enamel paint, Mid-13th century, Syria, Furusiyya Art Foundation
Using lively line and color, the artist of this spectacular bottle brings a local Christian community to life. Imposing buildings, clearly designated with crosses, alternate with charming details of agricultural activities, from harvesting dates and picking grapes to plowing fields.
Virgin and Child Enthroned and the Crucifixion
Tempera and gold on wood panels with gilded plaster, Ca. 1275–85, Acre
Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection
Pilgrims to the Holy Land could buy icons and other devotional objects at both holy sites and special shops in major cities. The purchaser of this icon, who is pictured to the left of the Virgin’s throne, likely bought the diptych in Acre, the last Crusader outpost in the Holy Land. Workshops there specialized in providing holy images, modeled on Byzantine paintings, to European Christians.
Mosque Lamp of Sultan al-Zahir Baybars
Brass, inlaid with silver and black compound, Probably 1277 (a.h. 676), Damascus
Museum of Islamic Art, Doha
The light that emanated from this pierced metal lamp was surely more suited to creating an atmosphere of mystery and reverence than to reading. Indeed, the inscription reveals that it was made for the tomb of Sultan Baybars (reigned 1260–1277), who played a significant role in expelling the Franks from the Holy Land.
Mosque Lamps of Sultan Barquq
Glass with gold and enamel, 1382–99, Egypt or Syria
Victoria and Albert Museum, London; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
For reasons both practical and symbolic, hanging glass oil lamps were an integral component of mosques and Islamic schools. At the Dome of the Rock and Aqsa Mosque, they numbered in the hundreds. In an Islamic context, they often include words from the Qur’an: “God is the light of the heavens and the earth.” Each of these lamps also bears the name of their donor, Sultan Barquq (died 1399), an active patron of architecture in his capital, Cairo, and in Jerusalem.
Icon with Saint George and the Young Boy of Mytilene
Tempera and gold leaf on gesso and woven textile (linen?) over wood support
Mid-13th century, Holy Land, British Museum, London
Protector of the weak, Saint George is a legendary warrior. European and Eastern Christians as well as Muslims looked to his example and visited his shrine. Crusaders rebuilt a cathedral dedicated to him at Lydda (Lod), near Jerusalem. This icon places the saint in a partisan Christian role: he rescues a boy from the Greek city of Mytilene who had been taken captive and forced to serve as a cupbearer to a local emir.
Goblet of Charlemagne
Goblet: glass with gold and enamel; mount: gilded silver
Glass: second half of the 12th century, Syria; mount: 13th–14th century, Paris(?), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Chartres
According to a richly embroidered legend, Charlemagne, crowned by the Pope and revered as a saint, brought this goblet back from the Holy Land. In fact, it was created some 400 years after his death in 814. A souvenir from a foreign culture, it was prized enough that its French owner had it set on a gilded silver foot.
The Book of Divine Service
From the Mishneh Torah, Tempera, gold leaf, and ink on parchment
Written by Maimonides (1135–1204), illumination attributed to the Master of the Barbo Missal, and copied by Nehemiah for Moshe Anauv be Yitzchak Ca. 1457, Venetian region or Lombardy
Jointly owned by the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Priests perform sacrifices in the Temple courtyard, introducing the eighth book of the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’s monumental codification of Jewish law. The text explicates the construction of and worship in the Temple, including detailed descriptions of its rituals and vessels. This intense study was vital to a community that was not only studying the historic Temple but also forever readying itself for the future one. Law books were rarely illustrated so sumptuously, attesting to the high esteem in which Maimonides’s work was held.
All photographs by Adel Gorgy