NEW YORK — The "A" Train runs from JFK International to Times Square to the Middle Ages: Its terminus in northwest Manhattan is near The Cloisters, an amazing place where you can step into a world that revolved around sacred icons, plague and what a full bag of gold florins could buy.
The Met is the big art museum in this town. The Metropolitan's pre-Pyramids Egyptian to 21st-century collections are housed in a venue that dwarfs Buckingham Palace and fronts Central Park. A whopping 4.5 million visitors went to The Met last year.
The Cloisters is its odd little sibling you don't hear much about. Attendance last year: 220,000. It's tucked away in pastoral Fort Tryon Park, on a hill on a bluff with stunning views of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades beyond.
Scan the park's tree line for a tower that looks like it was constructed about 1,000 years ago.
That's the Cloisters, home of the largest collection of medieval art in North America. And that tower, by the way, is also an original: a spanking new skyscraper, circa A.D. 940 in the French Pyrenees.
The Cloisters and its contents were brought together there by tycoon-turned-philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. —one of the men behind the Met and Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg — who had amassed a choice collection of statues, books and other items crafted by European artisans between the First Crusade and the Renaissance. In 1925, he made it possible for the Met to purchase the collection of sculptor and art collector George Barnard, who had acquired a considerable assortment of ruined medieval odds and ends in France.
Rockefeller also picked up Barnard's private museum, where those pieces were displayed, and some adjoining land. The real estate was given to New York City for a park. Barnard's items and Rockefeller's personal stash became the medieval-themed Cloisters.
A cloister was a medieval monastery that featured covered outdoor walkways facing an enclosed garden. Cloisters were perfect for monks who needed peace and quiet — and the tranquility there defies the loud hustle of New York. Windows facing the three courtyard gardens are large and numerous.
The two-level Cloisters building itself is an amazing consolidation parts of five different cloisters shipped to the New World and expertly cemented into one facility with ornate limestone columns, arches and other pieces of architecture worked in.
The result is like an elaborate movie set — but the real thing — with appeal for art lovers and for those who simply fancy castles-and-chivalry movies. (Russell Crowe's "Robin Hood" reaches the big screen next spring.)
Troves of authentic artifacts from those times are in short supply. At The Cloisters, they're numerous — approximately 1,846 — and displayed indoors and outdoors. They range from the very large (complete, reassembled chapels) to the tiny.
They collectively show Western Europe on a learning curve that starts in the ancient world and ends in the Renaissance. Medieval artists were often clueless when it came to visual perspective: Figures on the horizon in paintings and tapestries are the same size as those in the foreground. But calling those centuries the "Dark Ages" isn't accurate. You see remarkable skills and achievements that get little attention. Sculptors knew anatomy and how to fashion incredibly lifelike figures.
"Age of Faith" is a better stereotype: The museum's galleries are filled with carved wood, ivory and stone representations of saints and angels. The detailing on many of the figures, crucifixes, chalices, beakers and other objects is as good as what a craft master could produce in our times.
The most moving gallery might be the Gothic Chapel, a few steps down from the main floor and holding funerary sculpture. Light from an exterior window lands on the tomb-topper of Jean d'Alluye, a knight from France's Loire Valley who died circa 1248 after a busy life. He returned from the Holy Land with what he believed to be a fragment of the True Cross. This life-size and lifelike limestone carving topped his remains when he was buried in an abbey. After the abbey was sacked and destroyed during the French Revolution, this elaborate work was supposedly used as a footbridge. The carving shows the knight sleeping face up, arms folded in prayer, his body in knightly armor and with a lion (representing bravery) at his feet.
Nearby is the life-size likeness of Ermengol VII of Urgell, the master in the early 1300s of a county in northeastern Spain that outlived him by no more than a century. The image on his limestone monument shows him suited for war, sleeping pleasantly, his hands clasped in prayer. The long side of his trunk-like "bed" features detailed carvings of Jesus flanked by the 12 Apostles, standing in individual mini-archways.
Here and elsewhere at The Cloisters, it becomes clear how closely life intertwined with death. Average life expectancy was perhaps 35 for men, less for women, and much of the art back then was a display of piety that may have doubled as an insurance policy toward the afterlife.
In another gallery, and with a very different take on life and death, is a series of seven Unicorn tapestries — elaborate wool, silk and gilt-thread weavings from the late 1400s that show a band of hunters stalking and killing the mystical animal. The hangings are large — at least 120 square feet — and filled with enough cultural and religious symbolism and allegory to lard a Dan Brown potboiler.
In the sixth tapestry, the de-horned victim is hauled back to the castle, where the lords and ladies look impressed and curious but — oddly — not exactly elated. The final hanging shows the animal alive again, horn back in place, frolicking in a fenced enclosure. (Try to figure that out. Better yet, visit the Unicorn Tapestry Room when a school group is touring the place; listen to what the docent says.)
One gallery is stocked with glassware. In another you can see a tiny, hand-painted devotional book that belonged to a French queen in the 1320s. Nearby is the only full deck of cards known to survive the Middle Ages — 52 fancy and handmade cards in four suits you may not expect (hunting horns, dog collars, tethers and nooses).
The Cloisters is remarkably kid-friendly. A number of stone fountains, pillars and archways can be touched. (First, check the signs or ask a guard.) Many indoor items are mounted out of reach but not sheathed in glass. (The floor-to-ceiling unicorn tapestries are cordoned off with some kind of sonic "fence" and the beeping goes off frequently during class tours; kids feel compelled to lean over the wire for a closer look.)
The biggest surprise may be the sunlit Glass Gallery, where windows facing the Bonnefont Cloister Garden are inlaid with roundels — remarkable stained-glass scenes from around 1500, each the size of a dinner plate. One scene depicts hell as a nightmare-blue place where demons and the Devil have bright yellow eyes. The unclothed Devil, carting a naked victim, has a second horrific face in his belly, and his thighs are beast heads that look to be consuming his taloned feet.
The display also has fanciful stained-glass depictions of parables as well as snippets of long-gone everyday life. The most delightful shows a trio of chimpanzee carpenters attempting to assemble a gaming table.
Slapstick comedy ages surprisingly well.
IF YOU GO
THE BASICS: The Cloisters is at 99 Margaret Corbin Drive, near Broadway and Riverside Drive. From Midtown Manhattan, take the "A" train north to the Dyckman Street station. You can also get off the train one stop before (190th Street); the walk to the museum is longer but less steep.
Non-flash photography is permitted; video cameras not allowed.
Hours: 9:30 a.m.-4:45 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, to 5:15 p.m. March-October. Closed Jan. 1, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day). Admission: $20; $15 for 65 and older; $10 for students (any age, with ID); 11 and younger, free. Cost includes same-day admission to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's main building, 1000 Fifth Ave. (at 82nd Street).
Details: 212-923-3700; www.metmuseum.org/cloisters.
THE EXTRAS: May-October, guided tours are offered of the courtyards' gardens, with plants cultivated in medieval times. One garden also holds the Trie Cafe (open May-October). An orchard and wildflower meadow are also on the grounds. (The Cloisters has a helpful medieval garden blog: blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens.)
The Cloisters schedules various workshops, concerts and programs; events for kids range from talks on medieval games to arts-and-crafts events (make your own gauntlet, etc.)
Between The Cloisters and the 190th Street station is the New Leaf Cafe, a charming, cottage-like eatery in Fort Tryon Park that occupies its former stables. It is a nonprofit venture founded by singer/actress Bette Midler as part of her New York Restoration Project. Upscale burgers and salads plus entrees in a relaxing casual/upscale setting. (Lunch entrees: $12-$20; dinner: $24-$32.) Dine indoor or (weather permitting) on the terrace. Live jazz Friday evenings.
Hours: noon-3:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 6-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 5:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday; 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday brunch. Reservations suggested. Details: 212-568-5323; www.nyrp.org/newleaf.