I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published January 6th 2010
The Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to the preservation of medieval art and architecture, is nestled in the uppermost reaches of northern Manhattan, but is well worth a day trip. Situated in picturesque Fort Tryon Park, The Cloisters house some 5,000 works of medieval art that date from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries, including the famed unicorn tapestries.
The Cloisters were first opened to the public in 1938 through the generous sponsorship of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., whose financial support funded the transport of the structures from France, its gorgeous hilltop setting with dramatic Hudson River views, as well as much of the collection.
Visitors may wander freely throughout the grounds, first exploring The Cloisters from the outside, but further delights are in store once you enter the dimly lit Romanesque Hall and adjacent Fuentidueña and Langon Chapels. Shortly after, you are in view of the interior cloister gardens fully blooming year-around with both medieval and modern plants and flowers. In the center, the garden is punctuated by a beautiful fountain, once a capital in the eleventh-century church of Saint-Sauveur at Figeac in France. Walk peacefully along the four-sided arched arcade where you'll enjoy the delightful gardens in full view. Once on the western side, enter the Pontaut Chapter House with its amazing vaulted ceiling, the Early Gothic Hall and Chapel, and finally, the two tapestry rooms.
For many, a trip to The Cloisters is made exclusively to view the unicorn tapestries, among the last sets that exist. The six tapestries, called The Hunt of the Unicorn, date form the late fifteenth century and were likely made for Anne of Brittany in celebration of her marriage in 1499 to Louis XII. The tapestries tell a story of courtly love with much of the detail being symbolic, such as the pomegranates in the trees that were considered signs of marriage and fertility. Traditionally popular with children and adults alike, the unicorn tapestries complete your visit with final stops to the Boppard and Campin Rooms. Inside you'll find period furnishings and well as stained glass.
Among the most enjoyable aspects of visiting The Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park are the gorgeous views of the Hudson River. Not only are there dozens of spots to do so from inside the museum—ideally the West Terrace and adjoining ramparts—but the surrounding park is just as pleasant for a family picnic, romantic day trip, or quiet contemplation.