The Metropolitan Museum of Art
On the tip of northern Manhattan, The Metropolitan Museum of Art--Cloisters is one of the most peaceful and idyllic spots in New York. Its world class collection of medieval art, four secluded cloisters, parkland and gardens make for a truly memorable experience.
A highlights tour of the collection is always a lovely option.
However, for those who are looking for something different or who have been to the collection before, here are my curated themed explorations.
Hell Hath No Fury, Heaven All Aglow
Few things are more terrifying, bizarre and even whimsical than the Medieval depictions of hell. Who went there and why? What happened there? How could you get out?! From somersaulting demons to swirling flames, and man’s desperate attempts to avoid it all this tour takes us into the wild and wacky imaginations of artists and across epic journeys of pilgrims. But what was heaven like? For people who couldn’t read the Bible where did their ideas of heaven come from and how did they imagine it? How did artists aid paupers and princesses in visualizing it and achieving it? Let’s look at everything from manuscripts to stained glass to uncover the medieval conceptions of those enduring palaces and prisons of the mind: heaven and hell.
What on earth is a centaur doing on a church door carving? Is it true that Medieval people in Italy knew nothing about the art of China? What were the crusaders really out to achieve? Was sex really that taboo? Were the middle ages really as dark as we are led to believe? Let's look at the art that tells a different story and shows how contradictions abound.
Stories in Medieval Art
Look at any work in the Cloisters and you’ve got a great story. Hell, heaven, monsters, journeys, love affairs, battles, redemption, the incredible lives of the saints, the near drowning and miraculous saving of a sailor, the capture of a Moorish princess, the hunt of a unicorn, the rebirth of a pelican, the escape of a captive, the inner struggles of man between the virtues and vices: it’s all there in the art. This tour finds mesmerizing and enduring narratives to unravel and interpret together.
East Meets West in the Medieval World
What was it like for a knight from France to go to the cosmopolitan metropolis of Jerusalem in 1248? What did he bring back home? Why would a Christian queen in Spain want to be buried with an Islamic Moorish pillow? People in the middle ages had a complex connection with the world east of the Mediterranean. Artists in Spain sometimes drew heavily from the Byzantine artists of Constantinople. The lions found on French church sculpture are often definitely more Chinese than African. The blues that gave such vibrancy to Renaissance paintings came from Afghanistan not Italy. The pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem and the Silk Road from China to Iraq were busy and bustling, bringing ideas, food, techniques, designs and diseases during the middle ages that many westerners have come to define as quintessentially European. Let’s route out all the works in the museum that reveal this transcontinental exchange and find all the ways in which Europeans borrowed and appropriated from the lands at the end of their earth.
Courtly Love, Pilgrims, Crusaders, and the Medieval World
How heavy was chainmail? What was the attack on the castle of love all about? What were the great legends of love and heroism? What was it like to journey across Europe, through Byzantium, and into Abbayid Muslim lands for a piece of the true cross? Where did pilgrims sleep and how did they know where they could find safety? How did they understand the stars that guided them? How did they compare their own journey to that of Christ? What did they fight with and for? When did crusaders start becoming more violent and why? How does chess reflect the realities of their world and why did falcons become symbols of lust? All this can be found out just through looking at art, let’s dive into the medieval world.
Sex and Death
The funny thing about the medieval ages is that modern people usually think they were disgusted by one and obsessed with the other. In so many ways sex and death were intertwined in the middle ages—it’s not called The Passion of Christ for nothing! We will explore scenes of love and romance—why was chess and falconry associated so closely with love and sex? What were the greatest romance legends all about? Why is Aristotle often depicted on medieval water jugs giving a woman a piggy back ride?—and scenes of death, from knights’ tombs to emotional renderings of loss. We will see how these two great topics were intimately connected in medieval thinking. By looking at the ways even the most sacred of subjects could be sexualized, how true love could lead to salvation and many other ways art shows the blurring of the sacred and profane, we can tease out new readings of old subjects.