Medieval Art In New York: 75 Years At The Cloisters

Of all the Unicorn Tapestries, “The Unicorn in Captivity,” circa 1495–1505, stylistically does not match the hunt theme and perhaps was created as a single entity. The unicorn here is shown here fenced in, but the fence is low enough for the unicorn to escape if it desired. Fertility symbols, including the ripe pomegranates, orchid and thistle, and even the frog hidden among the violets, abound here.

NEW YORK CITY — Tucked away in Fort Tryon Park on the northern outskirts of Manhattan, far from Museum Mile, The Cloisters Museum & Gardens has been a bit overlooked among the city’s many fine museums.

Shamefully, this writer who has lived in the tri-state area for more than four decades, had never visited the museum … until now. It is a common refrain museum staff hear from visitors who arrive for the first time. First-timers soon are transfixed by what they discover here.

The word is out, though, as the museum celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding in 1938, kicking off a yearlong celebration in a big way. The first of three special exhibitions opened this week: “Search for the Unicorn: An Exhibition In Honor of The Cloisters’ 75th Anniversary,” which includes more than 40 works of art in various media and explores the theme of the unicorn in medieval and Renaissance art and literature.

The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe, was built from Twelfth–Fifteenth Century architectural elements, both religious and secular. Since its opening on May 12, 1938, the museum’s stone building and its cloistered gardens are as much the draw as its collection of some 3,000 works of art from medieval Europe, spanning the Ninth through Sixteenth Centuries.

“Search for the Unicorn” is on view through August 18 and will be followed by “Janet Cardiff: The Forty-Part Motet,” a sound installation and the museum’s first contemporary art exhibition. It will be on display September 10–December 8. The final, and highly anticipated, exhibition in the series is “Canterbury Stained Glass,” on view March–May 2014. It will comprise six nearly life-size enthroned figures in stained glass from England’s renowned Canterbury Cathedral; one complete window stands nearly 12 feet tall. This exhibition marks the first time the recently conserved glass panels have left the cathedral since they were made circa 1176–80.

A fitting choice for the first anniversary exhibition, the unicorn is rich in mythology and symbolism. Some see the unicorn as a metaphor for Christ, while the mythical creature itself, and the fair maiden with which it is often depicted, have been interpreted as symbolizing marriage.

Noting that the Unicorn Tapestries, which John D. Rockefeller Jr gifted to the museum in 1937, are among the institution’s most iconic objects, exhibition curator Barbara Drake Boehm said it was an obvious choice to build an exhibition around the museum’s seven tapestries. “They’ve really been the stars of the show at The Cloisters,” she said. The wool and silk tapestries portray a hunt for the unicorn with vivid figures set against a lush forest landscape.

Many of the plants depicted in the tapestries are grown in the gardens here, and in May, a special May-blooming millefleur planting and display of other plants pictured will be presented in the Bonnefort garden.

The exhibition afforded Boehm the opportunity to delve into the elusive nature of the unicorn, which has been depicted in art across many centuries and around the globe. Building the exhibit, she dug into the museum’s collection, where the unicorn was well represented, but also obtained loans of key objects from a diverse group of sources, including private collections and several public institutions in New York, such as the Morgan Museum & Library, the New York Public Library and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and from as far away as the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

“I was interested to do an exhibition that would let people see the larger context of the unicorn and how this notion of the one-horned creature fascinated artists and scientists in the Middle Ages,” Boehm said.

An example of this is a Sixteenth Century engraving in the exhibition that depicts the then-known four continents as a woman driving a drawn chariot. Europe’s chariot is pulled by two horses, Africa’s by lions and Asia’s by elephants. Interestingly, America is represented by a bare-breasted Native American woman whose chariot is pulled by two unicorns, showing how artists believed that the unicorn existed in faraway lands, such as America.

In medieval literature, especially scientific texts, the unicorn was thought to have curative properties, she said, and the idea that the unicorn actually existed was pervasive and persistent for many years.

Evincing the medieval belief in the magical are several items on loan for this exhibition ranging from a Twelfth Century illuminated manuscript to a Fifteenth Century printed version from Italy of a Thirteenth Century Hebrew text and a Fourteenth Century illustrated copy of the Shahnama, a Tenth Century text that regales readers with the bravery of Persian kings, such as Iskandar (Alexander the Great) killing a one-horned beast that looks like a unicorn. A German printing of the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, an illustrated travel diary to the Holy Land, printed in 1486, maintains that its woodcut of a unicorn was drawn from life.

“There’s this common theme that the unicorn lives somewhere over the rainbow … some place you know but have never been to,” Boehm said.

Romantically themed views of the unicorn in the exhibition are found in a late Fifteenth Century majolica dish created for the marriage of Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus (1440–1490) to Beatrix Aragon and a Twelfth Century Worksop Bestiary manuscript, English, with a folio of “A Maiden Taming a Unicorn,” depicting the unicorn with his head in a maiden’s lap.

A permanent fixture at The Cloisters is the Unicorn Doorway from the early Sixteenth Century made of volcanic rock. It came out of the Templar house in Montferrand, France, and depicts two unicorns flanking a chevron decorated with roses and crayfish, while a third, smaller unicorn sits atop the chevron.

A Polish Torah crown, silver, 1778, is on loan from a private collection. The ornate crown features a band of animals around the base, with a lion and a unicorn appearing to be doing battle or butting heads.

Another remarkable highlight in the exhibition is a kettle drum from Hanover, Germany, made for the Royal Life Guards of George III, king of Great Britain and England. The silver drum, one of a pair in the Met’s collection, depicts a unicorn as part of the royal coat of arms from both countries the king ruled. As these drums were often melted down for their valuable silver, few survive today. Another German standout is a circa 1425–50 aquamanile in the form of a unicorn.

Besides the unicorn exhibition, there are plenty of wonderful items to see at The Cloisters. A whole article could be devoted just to the architectural elements and stonework, but readers can learn more about The Cloisters at its website. Suffice to say, among the most iconic are the cloisters themselves. The cloisters are mostly composed of elements rescued from further decay by sculptor George Grey Barnard in the French countryside in the early 1900s, who reassembled them on the hill overlooking the Hudson River.

The lovely pink of the marble used in the Cuxa Abbey unites the many elements in the Cuxa Cloister, from columns and arches to the fantastically carved capitals in the Romanesque cloister arcade.

The many stained glass windows throughout the museum’s galleries vie for attention with the illuminated manuscripts, metalwork, tapestries, paintings and sculpture on display. They take prominence, however, in the chapels and in the Glass Gallery, where nine lunette windows are each inset with nine silver-stained roundels.

Illuminated manuscripts truly shine in the Treasury, where a diminutive standout is a Book of Hours that once belonged to Jeanne d’Evreux, Queen of France. Another highlight is the only known complete set (52) of illuminated playing cards (ordinary cards, not tarot cards) from the Fifteenth Century.

The centerpiece of the Merode Room is the Merode Altarpiece, famous among early Netherlandish paintings, which was painted in Tournai, circa 1425–30. Created for private prayer by its owners, the altarpiece depicts the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.

One of the most wonderful aspects of The Cloisters is that there are wonderful works from not just France, but all over medieval Europe, so a visit here is like stepping back in time. In one gallery, an impressive altar predella and socle in alabaster by Franci Gomar, Aragon, Spain, circa 1456–58, is shown with a very tall Paschal candlestick at 77 inches, Spain; a trio of reliquary busts of female saints, South Netherlandish, possibly Brussels; and a brass lectern in the form of an eagle, also South Netherlandish.

Dispelling the notion that The Cloisters’ collections are static, Boehm noted the museum is always adding to its collections and changing exhibits around. “It’s very important for people to know about the vibrancy of The Cloisters,” she said. In November 2011, the museum kicked off a new era when it had its first special exhibition since the 1980s with the well-received “The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis.” The anniversary exhibitions will continue this trend nicely and visitors, both repeat and new, can count on seeing a whole new side of The Cloisters each time they come.

The Cloisters is at 99 Margaret Corbin Drive in Fort Tryon Park (off Henry Hudson Parkway). For more information, or 212-923-3700.

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