As spring comes into full bloom, both New Yorkers and visitors emerge into the streets like the tulips and budding cherry blossoms found all over the city. While people gather in Central Park, a lesser-known paradise of blooms and greens has sprouted at The Met Cloisters, on the cliff walk between Inwood Hill Park and Fort Tryon Park.
Stemming from the medieval Latin claustrum, to bar or bolt, or from the Latin claudere, to close, “cloister” became an English noun in the 13th century to mean convent or monastery. The stone structure of The Met Cloisters, designed by Charles Collens, was built in the Romanesque style around portions of four cloisters—Cuxa, Bonnefont, Trie, and Saint-Guilhem—which were once part of French monasteries and abbeys. Excavated and reconstructed in New York from 1934 to 1939, The Met Cloisters incorporates these original French cloisters in a series of passages that lead to indoor chapels and galleries of Romanesque and Gothic art from England, France, and the Germanic countries, grouped by period and location, imparting a spiritual air to the cool stone architecture.
The core of the art collection was owned by George Grey Barnard, an American sculptor whose work, The Struggle of the Two Natures in Man, is on view in the American WIng at The Met Fifth Avenue. The collection was then bought in 1925 by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who gifted it to the Museum. Since then, the number of pieces at The Met Cloisters has grown to more than 2,000 works of art, including paintings, sculpture, and religious artifacts, as well as architectural elements such as stained glass, archways, columns, and chapels. In total there are 11,000 objects in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, divided between the The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters.
The word “cloister” has since evolved from indicating a religious space to mean “to seclude or close,” quite the opposite of the essence of our Museum location. Perched on a hilltop in northern Manhattan, this open-air setting transports you to a different time and place. The physical cloisters themselves generally feature one walled side and the other facing an arcade or colonnade that opens to the sky, presenting an oasis of beauty and serenity. Away from the busy city streets, the inner courtyard gardens are filled with bubbling fountains and the sweet and savory aromas of over 300 types of plants.
The Met Store takes great pride in offering art-inspired products for our visitors, some of which showcase the gardens at The Met Cloisters. A favorite is the rosemary bush, Rosmarinus officinalis, a perennial herb native to the Mediterranean region. This 2–3 foot tall bush is often cultivated for flavoring meat, potatoes, soup, or bread, and its fragrant needle-like leaves will bloom with white, pink, purple, or blue flowers seasonally. In the late Middle Ages it was used also for various medicinal reasons. Rosemary leaves placed in your bed could ward away nightmares; boiled in water, the leaves made a wash that could strengthen your body and prolong youth. Rosemary is also mentioned in the lore of Aphrodite, who was supposedly wrapped in it when she was born from the foam of the sea. Our Rosemary Necklace is sure to please gardeners, cooks, and friends alike.
The garden planted in the Trie Cloister has no precedent in medieval horticulture. It is a partly a fantasy garden made up of plants depicted in the Hunt of the Unicorn, the seven famous Unicorn Tapestries on view inside The Met Cloister’s galleries. The tapestries, woven in wool, metallic thread, and silk around 1500, tell the story of the pursuit and slaying of the mythical unicorn.
All the tapestries are abundant with flowers. The first and seventh in the series feature millefleurs, a carpetlike background of blossoms. In these are seen daffodils, thistles, pinks, wallflowers, sweet violets, periwinkle, primroses, English bluebells, and other flowers. Our delicate African Violet Pin recalls the tender violets planted both in the gardens and portrayed in these celebrated tapestries.
Our unique tote showcases The Unicorn in Captivity, the final panel in the series, in which the animal has been tamed and sits contentedly in a low enclosure beneath a pomegranate tree. The bag’s design pays homage to the millefleurs background that is so prominently featured in these beautiful tapestries.
The Met Cloisters is a mystical place that transports visitors back to medieval Europe, a time of spirituality and legends. Here, one can these re-live these ancient tales inside the galleries and then step into the gardens to enjoy the beauty and scents of plants from medieval times being grown, centuries later, in New York City.