A Report on the Cloisters, a Division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“In the Middle Ages there was a hierarchic ensemble of places: sacred places and profane places: protected places and open, exposed places… t was this complete hierarchy, this opposition, this intersection of places that constituted what could be very roughly be called medieval space: the space of emplacement” (of other Spaces, Foucault 22).

The Cloisters, a division of the Metropolitan Museum oft Art, in Fort Tryon Park, poses an interesting juxtaposition-a roughly hewn building of stone nestled in the midst of an open and organic natural space.

This arrangement brings to mind the true cloisters of medieval times. By definition, a cloister refers to an architectural feature. It is literally an open aired walkway around an interior quadrangle, many times occupied by a garden. Historically, however, these cloisters were used often in monasteries and convents where the religious inhabitants were secluded from the outside world. Thus, the word cloister became associated with the secluded monastery that the cloisters museum
imitates today. In the quote above, Michael Foucault comments briefly on the hierarchy of medieva space in his article Of other Spaces.

The medieval cloister does not stray from the concept of the hierarchy.

It is one of the sacred and protected places, in direct opposition to the profane and open, exposed places Foucault speaks of. Although there is a certain degree of comfort in an enclosed and protected space, there is also the inevitable sense of enclosure and captivity. From aspects as
massive as the Cloister’s architecture as a whole to details such as the atwork contained within its walls, the theme of captivity is always prominent.

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As Foucault states, everything in medieval society had its place. The cloisters were a place of religious seclusion and reflection for the brothers and sisters of the Church to live beyond the “confines” of regular life. These “confines” included the need to earn money and the need to procure Tood to survive. Ihe cloister offered a haven from these taskS.

Food was grown within its walls and the need for money or extravagant earthly possessions was nonexistent. Although it was not forbidden by any means to leave the walls of the cloister, it wasn’t often necessary. The inhabitants of the cloisters also knew of their place on the medieval hierarchy, and that place indicated they remain secluded from the rest of society. However, a human being does not fare too well when secluded form his fellow humans. Thus, the monk or nun preferred to remain in the cloister with his or her brothers and sisters. The cloisters, then, are confining in another sense–that of the psychological sense. The inhabitants would rather be confined in their own world than free in a world where they know no one.

It is because of this fact that the interior of the cloister was designed to be much more open and less confining than the outside of the building. From the outside, the cloister looked not unlike a fortress Outpost. But there was often an open ared courtyard or garden inside. The architecture of the cloisters in New York is fashioned much in the same way. The Cloisters is a combination of various real and reproduced architecture from the middle ages. The finished product, however, is a fairly realistic impression of a true cloister. The cloisters is very much like a tunnel. The visitor begins his journey through the museum in one room, choosing to go either left or right. From this first choice, there is generally only one way to travel through the halls. After completing the full circuit of the square halls, the visitor finds himself back in the main room where he began. Also like a tunnel, the rooms of the cloisters are longer than they are wide. The narrowness of
the rooms, as opposed to the great, expansive rooms of the main branch of the Metropolitan Museum, impose upon the visitor an additional sense of continement within the stone walls. it is not only the psychological senses that are affected by this sort of architectural design–the physical Senses åre very much affected as well.

Upon one of my visits to the Cloisters, I took careful note of the senses stimulated by the architecture. one sense I particularly noticed was the distortion of noise in this place. The echo of Tootsteps through the rooms and corridors takes on that long. hollowed sOund of a tunnel. WalKing alone through one of the rooms on a very quiet day, I tound the sound of my own tootsteps to be very uncanny. I felt detached from reality, as if the sound did not belong to me at all. The representation of estrangement” (12) I was observing is the subject of Anthony Vidler’s introduction to his book The Architectural Uncanny. I felt very alone and secluded in the halls of the Cloisters, and indeed I was on
very many levels. Used to being in the busy and noisy city, this stronghold of silence in the midst of Fort Tryon Park (as good as any forest to a citybug) gave me the most uncanny sense of seclusion. Although it may seem to be a paradox, I do not usually feel confined by the high rise city walls and Swarms of people in Manhattan. However, alone in this tunnel of stone and wood, I felt very enclosed and almost vulnerable. It was as it anything could come at me from the front or the back and would have no venue of escape. It is this lack of comfort and “unhominess” which Vidler speaks of that really made me feel like “the stranger in an uncanny place. The uncanny feeling of captivity is not
only present in the architecture of the building itself. The theme is also carried through in the artwork of the Cloisters.

The most well known tapestry for which the Cloisters is famous for must be the Unicorn series. The seven surviving pieces in the series depict a group of hunters in search of the mythical unicorn. The unicorn, a Jesus-like figure–appropriate for a cloister–is first spotted purifying the water tainted with snake venom. In the panels that follow, the unicorn IS pursued by the hunters, captured by the maiden, and inevitably killed. Interestingly enough, the most tamous panel of these tapestries Is the seventh and final panel. Depicted here is the unicorn, apparently arisen from the dead, chained to an encircling fence. According to an informational plaque fixed nearby, the fence could represent Christ’s link to humanity or the link of a bridegroom to his bride. The theme of the chase and capture is congruous with the Cloister’s feel of captivity. The Unicorn in Captivity panel serves as an unintentional insight to the original purpose of the medieval cloister. Cloisters kept its inhabitants tied to God and linked to the service of Him. A place free from the pressures of the material world is just as susceptuble to the captivity of another, more manipulative force: the pressure imposed upon our Own selves by our very own minds and beliet systems.

The Cloisters is not merely a reflection of the ways in which the monks and nuns of the middle ages lived. It is a timeless witness to the human need to continue building walls and setting boundaries. The boundaries are found in many forms. The narrow, tunnel-like encasements that make up the halls and rooms of the Cloisters only tell half the story. It is the psychological boundaries that truly hold
people back. Belief systems, both religious and not, usually define points of no return that humans are afraid to cross. It is this hesitation that illustrates the true human capacity for captivity. Just like the untortunate unicon, we too are tied down to values and beliefs that we sometimes hold above Our own nappiness.

Works Cited

  1. Foucault, Michael. Of Other Spaces. The Unicorn Tapestries. The Cloisters, a division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NewY York.
    Vidler, Anthony. The Architectural Uncanny.

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A Report on the Cloisters, a Division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (2023, Mar 10). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/a-report-on-the-cloisters-a-division-of-the-metropolitan-museum-of-art/

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