A Hidden Oasis: The Magic of the MET Cloisters

The view from the entrance of the Met Cloisters. REBECCA KRANICH/THE QUADRANGLE

By  Rebecca Kranich, Social Media Editor

Just seven subway stops from campus lies a castle-like structure, hidden by the greenery as the steeple towers over the surrounding city buildings; the Met Cloisters is a secret portal to the past. 

Marisa Lerer, Ph.D., interim chair of the art history and digital media art department, recalls her experience at the Met Cloisters and its importance to the Upper Manhattan/Bronx area.

“You walk into the Cloisters, and you’re transported spatially and temporally,” said Lerer. “It’s like you’re not in New York or the states anymore. It feels like you’ve walked into medieval Europe. The designers purposely bought all this land around the Cloisters, like even land even across the Hudson, so you couldn’t build on the property. It’s really important to have art encapsulated in these green spaces.”

According to an official Met Cloisters press release from 2006, construction of the Met Cloisters began in 1933 with the help of funding from John D. Rockefeller. The museum features tapestries, paintings and woodwork from 15th century medieval Europe. However, the building itself is from the medieval era. Maria Lucca, an adjunct professor in the art history department, who teaches classes on monasticism and art, explained what a cloister is and the museum’s origins.

“A cloister is a monastic compound surrounded by walls,” said Lucca. “In medieval times, it would have several different compartments like a refectory where monks would eat and a chapel where they would pray. It [the Met Cloisters] was brought over stone by stone from France. It’s an original, not just made to look like a castle. However, some of it is hybrid, but it’s the closest you’re going to come to a monastic setting in Inwood.” 

Medieval reenactor and museum visitor, Chelsea Kramer. REBECCA KRANICH/THE QUADRANGLE

One of the museum’s many highlights is the enclosed gardens, which feature herbs and flowers from the medieval era. This aspect of the museum is a major draw for tourists, including Chelsea Kramer, who traveled all the way from Denver, Colorado, to see the Cloisters. Dressed in a traditional medieval dress, Kramer explains her first impression of the museum.

“I’m a medieval reenactor, so being here for the first time, it just feels very homey,” said Kramer.

Similarly, Lerer noted that the gardens add to the immersive nature of the Cloisters.

“I think that’s what’s so special about it [the Met Cloisters],” said Lerer. “It’s successful in creating an atmosphere that involves all of these sensations. They have gardens with plants that would have been typical of different medieval countries.”

With the Cloisters so close to Manhattan College, art history professors have utilized the museum for their classes. Both Lerer and Lucca have taken classes at the museum and have emphasized the importance of art museums in their students’ education.

“It’s a way for students to be immersed and to really understand artwork in a whole different way,” said Lerer. “We get to walk around in architectural spaces and see how a work of art would have been a part of the space.”

Similarly, Lucca explained the irreplaceable experience of seeing the Cloisters in person. 

“I think it’s very different looking at something in person; you could do a visual analysis, which is something that you really can’t do online,” said Lucca. “In particular, when you’re at the Cloisters, you’re in an architectural setting. You can’t really duplicate that by looking at the images. The feeling of being in a medieval cloister, seeing the columns and the archways; those are things you have to experience.”