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.
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.
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.