Time travel is possible-no dimension defying wardrobes or H.G. Wells inventions needed, just take a trip to Washington Heights.
Perched on edge of Fort Tyron Park, sits a conglomeration of sand colored towers and terracotta tiles–The Met Cloisters.
Coming in from the hustle and endless bustle of Washington Heights, heavy archways and vaulted ceilings
cancel out most of the city din, and only the lowered voices, and pit-pat of shoes on centuries-old paving stones,
reverberate through the museum.
Walking through halls lit only by the jewel tones of stained glass windows, visitors can get lost for hours among The Met’s collection of medieval arts and crafts: Flemish tapestries, ivory altarpieces, and ornate manuscripts. But some of the real treasures of the Cloisters are not artifacts of kings long dead, but the verdant, very much alive gardens.
The Dark Ages? We think not!
Currently, The Met Cloisters houses three distinct gardens, each enclosed by three distinct “cloisters”: Cuxa Cloisters, Bonnefont Herb Garden, and the Trie Cloister. The Antique And Artisan was lucky enough to have Caleb Leech, The Met’s managing horticulturist, to act as our guide through The Cloisters.
Passing from a darkened arcade and somber “chapter house,” the garden of the Cuxa Cloister is a lively display of color. The verdant quadrangle is enclosed by a series of pink and white marble columns, and at the center of the garth* sits a similarly rose-colored basin. Radiating out from this central point are four green quadrants, each with a pollarded crab apple tree-a beautiful display of floral geometry. Mr. Leech points out the many species growing in the garden: various grass species, roses, lavender, chocolate cosmos (a New World species unknown to medieval Europeans, but its velvety texture and rich color would delight Cloister visitors of any epoch).
Monastic gardens like the Cuxa Cloister would have been an important space for the Benedictine monks it housed. Mr. Leech notes, the garth would have been used as a sort of “meditative tool.” Unlike the current, florally lush layout of the Cuxa Cloister, the Cuxa gardens of the Middle Ages would have been comprised only of simple grasses. Focusing on this stark plant life, monks believed they would be better able to contemplate heady subjects like the mysteries of heaven and hell, and lives of saints. And if their thoughts strayed from such musings, the wonderfully graphic columns enclosing the quadrangle, depictions of hell-fire and demons, would certainly have refocused their prayers.
While meditative gardens, like the Cuxa Cloister, attended to the spiritual needs of monastery dwellers, kitchen gardens and medicine gardens, like the Bonnefont Herb Garden, insured their corporeal well-being. Here, Caleb Leech and his small but dedicated team of horticulturists and museum volunteers, plant species which would have been used on a daily basis by Bonnefont monks. The space is dominated by a leafy mountain at its center: a hops plant, which would have provided beer for medieval inhabitants. Other useful species abound: such as woad, necessary in the production of the azure dye used in tapestries and other crafts, quince trees, and other, more recognizable species like chives, basil, and lavender.
Unlike the quiet of the Cuxa Cloister, Bonnefont is abuzz, quite literally with visitors, museum volunteers, butterflies, and a multitude of fat and happy bees. A heady smell of mad wort permeates the entire space-which is a good thing if you adhere to the medieval belief that this plant could ward off insanity.
There is subtle, hearty beauty in the Bonnefont cloister, more practical than that of the other gardens found at The Met Cloisters. Mr. Leech notes that in the Middle Ages people did not so easily dismiss the plants which contemporary culture denotes as “common,” or (gasp) a weed.
If the Bonnefont Herb Garden represents the secular nature of monastic life, the Cuxa Cloisters the spiritual, than the Trie Cloister is The Met’s fantastical Eden.
Recently renovated, and inspired by the millefleur background found in The Met’s famed Unicorn Tapestries, Leech and his team have created a lush paradise in the Trie Cloisters. Even the colored columns which enclose the space are delightfully whimsical. The garden is so thick with grasses and plant life that the ground appears more a carpet than an actual living thing. The fantastical aura of the Trie garden pervades the entire space-one can even imagine a white “horse” dipping its ivory horn into the clear waters of the fountain found at the center. Like-minded museum-goers sit, and day-dream, under the Trie Cloister’s arcades while enjoying treats from the museum cafe.
The Met Cloisters is a living, growing reminder of what life was like in a Europe of centuries past. Whether you are there to wonder at medieval artifacts or sit in the meditative silence of its gardens-The Met Cloisters is truly a sanctuary in the City.
The Met Cloisters is open to visitors 7 days a week:
March–October: 10 am–5:15 pm
November–February: 10 am–4:45 pm
Thank you to Caleb Leech and the staff of the Met Cloisters for providing their expertise and time, and for making this post possible.
Written by Mallory O’Donoghue
Graphics and Photography by Patricia Lesyk
*Garth- an archaic word for garden or enclosed lawn.