The approach to the Cloisters is lovely; the fluster and seethe of the city feel very far away. Squirrels gambol and sparrows fossick in Fort Tryon Park. Far below the Hudson trundles towards the ocean. Beyond the river is the flat enigma of New Jersey. It is a fitting location for a medieval museum; it invites ye olde verbs. Even the subway station is an anachronism of hewn stone.
What is a medieval abbey doing in New York? It makes no sense, but it’s nice to look at. Like a lot of the city’s museums, this has to do with money. A very large amount of money; the kind of money that can buy almost anything in the world – any work of art or historical relic – and then give it away to a museum or gallery. New York is awash with other people’s purloined art.
The Cloisters is a fanciful assemblage of elements from five French abbeys, that were brought, disassembled, flung across the ocean, and then reassembled. The resulting confabulation invokes the distant past so longed for in the city of the eternal present. It is a fictional past, but it is beautiful. Fictional, but somewhere deep down in there are the real bones and traces of the past.
The Cloisters is a tranquil, elegant place, but its halls, chambers and courtyards are full of creeps.
Creeps with staring, dead eyes. Creeps wearing slack-jawed grimaces. Wailing, moaning creeps with twisted knuckles and ashen skin.
Creeps riding donkeys, creeps armed with swords and staves, creeps wearing mitres, creeps bearing gifts.
Bloodied, pierced and broken creeps, flayed creeps, homuncular creeps, creeps with smashed noses, missing hands, splintered sides and eroded faces.
Some of the creeps have hooves or talons, manticore faces or gryphon bodies (I might need a separate post for the fantastic beasts of the Cloisters).
The creeps are, to be honest, one of the main attractions of the Cloisters. They held positions of esteem in the Old World and witnessed the declines of their respective houses, before making the long (and expensive) trip across the seas. Most of them are probably older than America. Here they can command the attention that they knew centuries ago – even if the terms of that attention have changed from veneration to curiosity. People here don’t necessarily get them; they think that they’re kind of creepy, but then again isn’t that what the medieval times were all about? A carnival of the grotesque? Even the word medieval sounds kind… evil. Only spelt funny – kind of like how they spell things in creepy old Europe.