December 26, 2011

"The Game of Kings" at The Cloisters

At the northern tip of Manhattan Island, in Fort Tryon Park, is The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that houses their substantial collection of medieval art.  The building is comprised of elements from actual European cloisters, acquired in the early 20th Century, transported across the ocean and re-assembled as a museum that opened to the public in 1938.  The Cloisters as we know it today is thanks in large part to the generosity and foresight of John D. Rockefeller Jr. who provided not only for the building and the site on which it sits but also purchased several hundred acres of land across the Hudson River in New Jersey so that the view would never be marred by unsightly development.

It had been quite a while since I'd visited The Cloisters.  Although it was one of my first museum stops when I moved to New York in 1983 and I retained very fond memories of more recent visits, I had not ventured to the Inwood section of town in a long time.  But while contemplating how to enjoy a few days off over the Christmas break I heard an ad on the radio promoting a special exhibition and the fact that the museum would be open for Holiday Mondays.  That was it - I couldn't wait to go!

A trip to The Cloisters is like stepping back in time.  I emerged from the elevator that brings "A" train passengers to street level and started walking along a path past historically themed gardens and very soon the tower of The Cloisters came into view.  As I entered the Main Hall through the Froville Arcade I was impressed by the beautiful decorations befitting a church in the Middle Ages.  Holiday garlands of holly, ivy and bay laurel accented with apples, hazelnuts, pine cones and rosehips graced the arches as agents of blessing and protection as well as celebration.  It was magical.

The Romanesque Hall stands immediately off the Main Hall and it was here that the special exhibition "The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis" is being presented.  What could be so special about a few game pieces you may wonder?  One look at the first vitrine and you will know - they are exquisite.  Created circa 1150 AD, probably in the region of Trondheim, Norway and likely for a Medieval Norwegian king, the chess pieces were discovered in 1831 by a peasant digging in a sandbank on the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland's Outer Hebrides.  Because the chess figures were part of a larger group of walrus ivory artifacts, researchers believe that the treasure trove probably belonged to a merchant who traded in these goods.  The crofter who found the hoard was terrified, fearing the little figures were elves or evil spirits, and eventually the British Museum acquired the bulk of the chess pieces with the National Gallery of Scotland taking a few.  For the first time ever, the British Museum has very kindly lent 34 of its 67 chessmen to the The Cloisters so museum-goers on this side of the Atlantic can marvel at these little gems.

Take, for example the four Knights presented as a group.  Each is armed with a spear, a sword, a helmet and a shield with individual decoration and each is mounted on a sturdy little pony with a shaggy mane.  Or the majestic Kings seated with swords across their knees on elaborately carved thrones and featuring long wavy hair.  Their counterparts, the Queens, are also seated on thrones but their hair is covered with crowns and veils and each has her right hand pressed to her face as if in deep contemplation.  Three Bishops wear miters and carry tiny croziers while one raises his hand in a blessing.  The lowly Pawns, the most abstract of the set, are the only pieces without human form bearing a greater resemblance to decorated bullets than a people.  The most amusing are certainly the four Rooks portrayed as foot soldiers protected by helmets, shields and swords with distinctive decoration making each unique.  But one in particular stands out - the "Berserker" the warden so eager for battle that he contains himself only by biting on the top of his shield!  None is larger than four inches in height and each has a distinctive facial expression and pose that distinguishes it from the others.  More importantly, each is an example of superb craftsmanship on the part of the carver who imbues the piece of walrus tusk with a unique personality and charm.

But The Cloisters has a lot more to offer!  Its fantastic collection, assembled for the most part by Mr. Rockefeller and a Mr. George Barnard, an American sculptor whose passion for Medieval art led him to found a museum of his own, numbers over 5,000 objects ranging from polychromed Madonnas to illuminated manuscripts, all presented in this marvelous, authentic setting.  Visitors tour the Gothic Chapel with marble tombs of Knights and colorful stained glass windows, into the now covered Cuxa Cloister garden with its fountain and potted citrus trees, passing the chamber with the renowned 16th Century Belgian Unicorn Tapestries to the Merode Room with its Netherlandish masterpiece, the Merode Altarpiece depicting The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary.  Downstairs one can visit the manicured herb garden, the Glass Gallery and the impressive Treasury featuring even more exquisite ivory objects such as plaques, caskets, devotional diptychs, croziers and crosses.

My readers know that I am a devotee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and never miss an opportunity to visit.  But during this special season, the season of miracles, a trip to The Cloisters with its intimate, almost reverend setting seemed more appropriate and a perfect Christmas pilgrimage.  An ideal ambiance from which to wish you and yours a blessed holiday!

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