There is a little church on 51st between 9th and 10th ave that I walk past all the time, and there is this statue of the blessed mother in the courtyard that captivates me if only for a moment each time I see it. Last week though, she was covered in white snow, and looked positively divine. This photo I took of her inspired me to go on a little field trip the following day to the Cloisters.
What are the Cloisters you ask? Well, the Cloisters are the sum of many things, but at its heart, the Cloisters are the spectacular resting place of many a religious artifact from the Old World. The Cloisters are an extension of the Metropolitan Museum, and are located within Fort Tryon park just off of 190th street at the tip of Manhattan.
When you dismount the A train at 190th, you are greeted by a big sign indicating you are at the mouth of the park, and that you must walk through the park to get to the Cloisters. On any other day, this is probably a leisurely little journey, but because of the snow, it was a semi-treacherous adventure.
There was anywhere between one and two feet of snow covering the ground in some places, and all stairs and walkways were hidden beneath the white stuff. Add to this that the wind was blowing and changing course rapidly, and you have yourself a good time in a winter wonderland. Though I was by myself, I felt safe, and loved testing out my new boots in the snowy weather.
I could see the main tower of the Cloisters off in the distance, so I set off in that general direction, but got off track a couple times. When I made it there, I was greeted by a few guards, and as a reward for completing my journey through the snow, there was only a small handful of other guests roaming the building.
Clearly someone high up makes oranges grow in January in NYC.
As I mentioned before, the Cloisters are the sum of many things. Several archways are taken from ruins and churches that have long been gone. The artifacts within are from times we really can’t personally fathom. Everything was made by hand, everything had a meaning, everything had a specific place to be observed.
Wandering the grounds of the Cloisters was not so much a religious experience for me as it was a meditative experience. There were clearly defined chapels and places where one could worship, but I preferred to simply sit and marvel at the grandeur of how the Old World expressed itself through religious iconography. Most of the place seemed to be waiting in silence for something, and because the light poured in through intricately stained glass windows, there was a peaceful glow to nearly every corner.
Stepping from room to room yielded varying experiences. Some had a somber tone to them, reflecting the Lamentation, the Passion, or the life of Jesus, while others were purely jubilant and full of light.
One room in particular was fascinating. It contained immense wall sized tapestries telling the story of a unicorn and its capture. I had seen photos of these tapestries in books when I was very young, but I had no idea of the huge scale they were created in. Normally when you see a Monet or a Dali, the effect is quite the opposite. I couldn’t believe I was just inches away from the Unicorn! There was even a narwhal horn in the room for good measure—it was taller than me!
Another room caught me completely off guard when I stepped through the portal. Hung from its vaulted ceiling was a sculpture of Jesus that was as bizarre as it was large. He was depicted as being eerily calm despite His predicament, long and lanky, and styled kind of like a cartoon character. He looked quite alive, and if He would have moved, I probably would have ran out of the place. Something was just odd about this particular figure of Him, and though I was drawn to take photos, I was definitely creeped out.
There were cool sarcophagi in another room that I really liked. I liked the idea of them being out in a well lit room with chairs beside them, as if you are supposed to tell them things. Not that I am preoccupied with my own passing, but I would like a similar type of treatment. Somewhere between the mausoleums of New Orleans and these sarcophagi is a happy medium that I would like to plan for myself so my descendants can come visit in a welcome place. Somehow I’d need to cram a tree inside as well. Hmmmm.
At any rate, I had a great time passing through the corridors of the Cloisters and highly recommend making the trip. Even if you are not a religious person, like me, you can have a great time exploring and imagining the histories of the wonderful things you’ll find inside. If you are religious, you will enjoy the splendor and glory of your faith as it was in the past.
My walk back to the train seemed much less arduous after being in a building full of light all day, and the whole trip was well worth the trouble.