“Wonderful crowd on the @TODAYshow plaza despite the rain. Thanks for stopping by to visit!!,” NBC’s Weekend Today Show Meteorologist Dylan Dreyer tweeted on Saturday, December 6.
Two hours later, we peeked in the studio’s windows, watched Dylan, Lester Holt and their colleagues for a few minutes, and then embarked on our journey to the northernmost end of Manhattan. During the next 15 hours, we marveled at some of New York City’s famous holiday window displays, explored medieval art and monastery architecture at The Cloisters, dined in a refurbished cobblestone cottage and admired Neapolitan peasants and Stradivarius violins at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Rockefeller Center’s glittering angels heralded our arrival at Saks Fifth Avenue. Six animated scenes from classic fairy tales were depicted in Art Deco style, with iconic New York locations providing the backdrop. “An Enchanted Experience” included Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into gold in subway tunnels, Rapunzel swinging by her hair from the Empire State Building, and Snow White being tempted by an evil apple seller in Times Square.
Up Fifth Avenue, at Tiffany & Company, we peered into jewel-box vitrines to see vignettes of life in New York City. Jewelry sparkled from miniature billboards, taxi trunks and around a Central Park campfire. Inspired by the fireworks display created for the Tiffany Diamond at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, massive “jewels” illuminated the store’s façade.We found “Inspiration” across the street at Bergdorf Goodman, where each window was devoted to one of the arts. Theatrical settings and tricks of perspective transformed ordinary store windows into a silent film set, performance stages and studios for architectural drawings, sculpture and painting. In the “Literature” vitrine, portraits of famous writers like Jane Austen and Mark Twain were rendered in tapestry, needlepoint, macramé and felt appliqué.On Madison Avenue, a black model train wound its way through a forest of white dowels in the windows of Calvin Klein. A block north, film director Baz Luhrmann and his wife, costume and production designer Catherine Martin, created “Baz Dazzled” for Barneys New York. “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived,” read a motto inscribed on a banner over dazzling windows celebrating beauty, truth and freedom.
Beauty is what we found at the end of the M4 bus line, after making our way northward from Madison Avenue to Broadway to Fort Washington Avenue and West 190th Street. Our destination was Fort Tryon Park.
During the Revolutionary War, the area was known as Fort Washington; then, the British renamed it for Sir William Tryon, the last British governor of colonial New York. Later, wealthy 19th-century New Yorkers built elegant estates there. In 1917, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. acquired the land, later purchasing acreage on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River — known as the Palisades — to preserve Fort Tryon’s spectacular views of the river. In 1931, Rockefeller donated the land to the City of New York; in 1935, he hired Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., son of the designer of Central Park, to transform the site into a 67-acre park, with terraces, wooded slopes, and eight miles of pedestrian paths from which visitors could enjoy the view.
The site was so much like the setting of a medieval monastery that Rockefeller decided to have a building erected for displaying magnificent medieval artwork.
In 1925, Rockefeller helped The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchase sculptor George Grey Barnard’s extensive collection of Romanesque and Gothic sculptures, as well as portions of cloisters that Barnard salvaged from four French monasteries at Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Bonnefont-en-Comminges, and Trie, all dating from the 12th to the 15th centuries. Rockefeller also donated dozens of medieval works of art from his private collection to enhance the museum’s holdings from this period.
Boston architect Charles Collens designed the building, patterning the northeast elevation after a 12th-century French church. He incorporated features of a tower at Cuxa in his design for the tower, and modeled the Gothic Chapel after 13th-century French chapels. Roof and floor tiles were copied from examples excavated at Cuxa. Beams for the ceilings, planks for the doors, and glass for the windows came from old buildings. The courtyard and the entrance driveways are paved with Belgian blocks, taken from old New York streets in the Wall Street area, suggestive of old European cobblestones.
The Cloisters opened on May 10, 1938. Seventy-five years later, an aura of peace, serenity and quiet pervades The Cloisters, creating the lovely setting for medieval art that Rockefeller intended.
European monastery buildings surrounded a central cloister, an open courtyard bordered by covered, arcaded walkways reminiscent of the peristyles in Roman houses. When monks weren’t meeting in the monastery’s Chapter House, they came to the cloister to meditate and study. At The Cloisters, you can explore a 12th-century Romanesque Chapter House from the French Aquitaine, as well as four cloisters.
Decades ago, I purchased Erica Wilson’s Cloister Garden Sampler from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Store. When I encountered the Cuxa Cloister, the finished sampler that hangs in my bedroom came to life. An arcade of capitals decorated with acanthus leaves, palms, vines, bunches of grapes, rosettes, animals and people borders a garden divided into four quadrants, each planted with a crabapple tree in the center and bordered by flowering plants and herbs known during the Middle Ages. An eight-sided 13th-century fountain from a French monastery is the focal point of the garden. Potted Mediterranean plants like myrtle and bay laurel, together with olive and bitter orange trees, line the arcade during the wintertime.
The Bonnefont Cloister garden features a symmetrical planting of herbs and quince trees around a 15th-century Venetian well. In the Trie Cloister garden, a fountain stands at the center of a rectangular plot with 80 species of plants, evocative of the millefleurs (“thousand flowers”) backgrounds of medieval tapestries. Raised beds of herb plantings are bordered by bricks and wattle fences in the Bennefont-en-Comminges Cloister garden. The plants are grouped and labeled according to their medieval usage, from medicinal and culinary needs to those providing pigments used for painting manuscripts and dyeing textiles, such as weld (yellow), madder (red), and woad (blue).
Yellow stained-glass roundels popular in 15th-century Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands are displayed in windows with leaded glass panes that look out over the river. The natural light from the windows imparts liveliness to the stained glass that is difficult for other museums to convey.
An unusual circa 1480-limewood statue of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, from a parish church in Ebern, Bavaria, still has much of its original paint. Appliques of gold leaf and glazes that were popular in Germany at the time simulate a brocade pattern on St. Anne’s dress. Burn marks from candles visible along the front edge of the sculpture indicate that it was a devotional image.
Figures dressed in elaborate Burgundian court costumes adorn the only complete set of painted playing cards known to survive from the Middle Ages.
In the recently restored Late Gothic Hall, there’s a huge 16th-century Spanish tapestry celebrating the birth of Jesus that had been cut into four pieces and then rewoven together. Nearby, I spotted an intricately carved lindenwood statue by our old friend, Tilman Riemenschneider of Franconia, Germany.
The prized Unicorn Tapestries, six magnificent 15th-century tapestries representing the Hunt of the Unicorn, were a gift of the Rockefellers. Their millefleurs backgrounds represent 101 species of plants typical of the time; 85 have been identified.
Other features of this gallery were a Book of Hours and a diptych used for private devotions, together with something I’d never heard of before — an aquamanile. This 15th-century copper vessel in the shape of a unicorn was made in Nuremberg, Germany and was used for washing hands, both in liturgical and secular settings. Water was poured through a covered opening at the top of this distinctive creation and dispensed through a spigot in the unicorn’s chest.
The highlight of my visit was the Campin Room, furnished with a late 15th-century painted pine ceiling from the Tyrol, high-backed oak and walnut benches, a wall bracket with a reflector to increase the illumination of candlelight, a Flemish bronze chandelier, majolica and lusterware.
There, I found another old friend from my art history classes. The Annunciation Triptych (Mérode Triptych) painted by Robert Campin circa 1375-1444, is a splendid example of northern European art. Strong foreshortening, together with meticulously painted strands of hair, folds of drapery, and the view of a city seen through an open window, demonstrate the careful attention to detail that defines this period of art history. The center panel depicts the Annunciation in a unique secular setting. On the right panel of the oil painting, Saint Joseph works on a mousetrap. Since private devotion was so important during this time, people imagined themselves as witnesses to events in the Bible, so the man who commissioned the triptych and his wife are depicted on the left panel.
To ensure a respectful setting for these sacred works of art and provide a contemplative atmosphere in which to view them, The Cloisters relies on digital audioguides instead of captions and wall panels to provide information about the collection. Subdued background colors make for an unobtrusive setting that does not detract from the artwork and architectural fragments on display.
Frequent musical concerts are held in Fuentidueña Chapel at The Cloisters. The day we were there, Ensemble Organum from France and Christos Chalkias, a chanter from Thessaloniki, Greece, gave In Praise of Saint Nicholas, a program of hymns, Latin and Greek Byzantine antiphonal chants, and excerpts from the emblematic manuscript of the Cathedral of Benevento, Italy to celebrate the feast of Saint Nicholas.
Fort Tryon Park is also home to New Leaf, a restaurant housed in the park’s original concession building. In 1995, Bette Midler and her friends discovered the dilapidated building in the neglected park, revitalized it through her founding of the New York Restoration Project, and supported its opening in 2001. Its cobblestone exterior, slate roof and granite archways are complemented by oak trusses that support its 18-foot-high ceiling. It’s a wonderful place for brunch on weekends.
Finally, we spent a few hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we admired the towering Christmas spruce on which over 50 silk-robed angels hover over hundreds of figures in a Neapolitan Baroque crèche scene. In the André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments, we learned how Baroque violins are tuned at a lower pitch, have a shorter neck and fingerboard, and are without chin and shoulder rests. Click here to see “The Francesca” violin by Antonio Stradivari that we saw and here for other violins on display.
To read more about The Cloisters, see The Cloisters: Medieval Art and Architecture, by Peter Barnet and Nancy Wu; A Walk Through The Cloisters, by Bonnie Young; “Creating the Cloisters,” by Timothy B. Husband, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, volume 70, number 4 (Spring 2013); “George Grey Barnard: The Cloisters and The Abbaye,” by J.L. Schrader, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, volume 37, number 1 (Summer, 1979), and Medieval Monuments at The Cloisters and The Cloisters: The Building and the Collection of Medieval Art in Fort Tryon Park, both by James J. Rorimer. Also, watch The Cloisters Museum and Gardens – Behind the Scenes with the Director, a video tour of The Cloisters with Tom Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Peter Barnet, curator in charge of medieval art and The Cloisters. The page also provides links to other videos about the collections, medieval art and The Cloisters; footage of The Cloisters under construction, and “The Hidden Talisman,” a 1928 film telling the story of the history of The Cloisters that was shot at the original Cloisters museum. This video describes the painstaking restoration of the 16th-century Spanish tapestry in the Late Gothic Hall that took place between 1973 and 2009, including designing and dying yarns specifically for the project.
For more about this year’s holiday windows, see “Holiday Window Displays Lure Them Inside, by Dazzling Outside,” from the November 30, 2014 issue of the New York Times.