Friars, Demons, and Saints: a Guide to the Met Cloisters
By Sophie Bartholomew
I like to consider myself fairly well acquainted with New York’s major art institutions, having visited most of them numerous times. However, it wasn’t until recently that I made my first trip to the Met Cloisters and realized what an oversight I had made. Most tourists are familiar with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s famous 5th Avenue location. Those interested in contemporary art will likely have visited the Met Breuer. But I don’t think I’m alone in having little familiarity with the Met’s third location. The Cloisters is located in the extreme north of Upper Manhattan, past Harlem, past Washington Heights, and past anywhere most tourists find themselves touring. While it may be a trek, the Cloisters was well worth my time.
The Met Cloisters comprises four cloisters (sheltered walkways) taken from medieval French monasteries, multiple chapels reconstructed from a variety of medieval periods, and a collection of approximately five thousand medieval objects. Though I am a huge fan of medieval art and architecture, you need no prior knowledge of medieval Europe to enjoy the Cloisters’ vast collection. In addition to the lush gardens of the courtyard and dramatic architecture, the works on display are compelling in their playful use of color, poignant expression of emotion, and sense of humor. To get you acquainted with its fascinating collection, and to prompt a trip to the Cloisters next time you’re in New York, I have compiled my top five favorite pieces currently on display.
While the entirety of this portrait is a masterpiece of impressive craftsmanship, the highlight of the work is certainly the demon in the lower register. The devil on which Saint Michael stands in this gallant portrait is a testament to the imaginative quality so prominent in medieval art. This imagining of a demon is both terrifying and hilarious; with a total of five monstrous faces grinning from the demon’s body; one long-necked bird emerging from behind; two reptilian creatures consuming the arms; three snakes creeping out of the ears; seven bugs crawling on the abdomen; and one unidentifiable creature rising from the furry pointed head. This fantastical work is a delightful example of the creativity of High Gothic art and perhaps offers insight into the fears of those living in 15th century Spain.
For the High Gothic period, this large-scale memorial carving of a friar is uncharacteristically minimalistic and refined. The stylized and sophisticated system of lines in this piece appeal to modern aesthetic sensibilities. The variety of texture from the squiggly curls of the distinct hairstyle to the heavy folds of the friar’s habit is impressive. Amidst much of the heavily patterned and vividly colored works of medieval Europe, the simplicity of this carving is unusual and refreshing.
While I am partial to reliquaries, which in my opinion are some of the strangest and most fascinating of all medieval art, this reliquary bust of Saint Juliana is undeniably a gem. The combination of the life-like coloring of her blushing cheeks and soft-toned skin, and glorious head of gilded curls, create a charming portrait balancing realistic and imagined qualities. Saint Juliana’s direct gaze and slightly parted lips make for an exceptionally engaging piece of medieval portraiture. As a reliquary, this bust is said to contain physical remains of Saint Juliana herself, imbuing the work with religious significance and elevating it to a level of sanctity. The gold of the intricately carved base and delicately patterned crown add to the captivating beauty of this work.
The saturated color scheme and stylized, cartoonish figures of this painted wood box are playful and lively, making for a battle scene that vibrates with anxious energy. With their wide eyes, upturned eyebrows and open mouths, the soldiers in this work seem both terrified and inquisitive. Their faces are fraught with emotion while their features are so exaggerated that they become comical. This wood box is not only a record of the historical capture of Orange, but the tense faces and the vivid, contrasting colors effectively communicate the apprehensive mood of a war scene.
Thus far, I have chosen works whose obscurity make it unlikely that anyone who isn’t a medieval specialist would be familiar with them. However, the Merode Altarpiece is an indisputable superstar of the Cloisters collection. The rich colors, incredibly minute detail, and complex imagery make for a work which lives up to its renown as an acclaimed High Gothic, Early Netherlandish piece. While you are more likely to have encountered this work reproduced either in a book, on a poster, or perhaps projected on a screen in an art history class, viewing this work in person is a unique experience and single-handedly makes the trip to the Cloisters well worth your while. Alternatively titled “the Annunciation Triptych” (as its center panel depicts Gabriel announcing to Mary the conception of Christ), this work is completely enveloping when experienced in the flesh.