The Cloisters: A Good Place to Start

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by Andrew Baker

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It was early March 2008, when I met a friend, and painter, for a drink after work at a bar beneath Grand Central. He had just come from the Whitney Biennial, which had recently opened. The experience had left him drained and a bit cynical. I hadn't seen the show, but I knew the feeling.

There are shows that leave you so invigorated that all you want is to be back in the studio, feeling as though you could work through the night without tiring. Then there are the shows that leave you empty, pondering the foolish choices and childish ideals that led you to choose the life of an artist. And you leave these shows knowing you're supposed to want to go back to work. But who can work when there's so much drinking to be done?

So we talked for a while over some beers about the things two painters talk about when they feel the world is backwards and that nobody makes art for the right reasons. And somewhere in there, we realized that though we'd both lived as painters in the city for the better part of a decade, neither of us had ever been to The Cloisters. Finally, a problem that could be solved!

And so it happened that the following morning my friend and I met at Columbus Circle, and headed north seeking some form of creative purification or rejuvenation at a medieval monastery on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

If you've never been to The Cloisters, it's really quite remarkable. The subway lets you off outside the gates of Fort Tryon Park, which is a gorgeous patch of hilly green overlooking the Hudson just to the north of the George Washington Bridge. From there it's a bit of a hike through the park's gardens and wooded passes, and by the time you finally reach the abbey you're so taken out of your surroundings that it's almost a surprise to realize that you haven't even left the city. It's a feeling you rarely get in any of the other major NYC parks, and for this place, it's an appropriate sort of artifice. For it's there, hidden away at the northern tip of Manhattan, that you can find a museum that houses what is probably the greatest medieval art collection in the New World; including, most famously, the Unicorn Tapestries.

The building is a sort of amalgam comprising architectural elements taken from various medieval European abbeys and transported to New York, in the 1930s, by John D. Rockefeller Jr., for redesign by Charles Collens. The interior is stone, and a bit cold. In the heart of the building, there's a 12th century arcade (hence: Cloisters) surrounding an open-air garden, which is closed off during the colder months, as it was then. At opposing ends of the garden, there are two chapels, built centuries apart, lit by a cool expanse of ambient natural light. The tapestries hang in more dimly lit rooms adjacent to the arcade, but the bulk of the collection on display, e.g., illuminated manuscripts, ivory carvings, early Flemish masterpieces, can be found on the lower floors.

We walked through this space with thoughts of the Biennial and of the emptiness of its brand of celebrity still fresh in our minds. I stopped before an elongated glass case that held a small ivory relief. There were two panels with hinges in the center allowing it to open and close like a book. Opened, the piece displayed four miniature scenes carved into the ivory. On the left was the Coronation of the Virgin. On the right: The Last Judgment. In the lower third of both panels, souls were being lined up, the lucky being welcomed to Paradise, the rest were being banished to damnation. It had been carved by an anonymous Frenchman in the mid-13th century.

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I've seen a lot of medieval art and artifact in my life, and I have little doubt that I've walked past similarly crafted works before without taking notice. And shame on me for that. But not on this day. I remember being struck by the scale of the thing. In a world where we can become so accustomed to the over-sized, to the pretension of the monumental, here was this thing, this tiny object that I could hold in my hand, smaller than a paperback, but carrying more weight than anything I'd seen in I-don't-know-how-long. And what was this weight? Whatever it was, it seemed to flow through those halls like lava: dense and slow, but hotter than you can imagine. And it filled those spaces with a power to preserve the old as new, and leave the new cowering in shame and in awe.

The diptych was but one object of many that made us stop and just look. But it's only one of literally dozens of ivory carvings and miniatures, each sharing many of the same attributes. It was the same with the Gothic sculptures adorning the walls of a crypt from which they looked down on a variety of gorgeously rendered sarcophagi. And it was the same with the paintings. Shit. The paintings!

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The Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin may be the greatest painting I've ever seen. Humbly displayed in a quiet room the color of limestone, it sits on a perch and whispers, "Come closer." I obeyed, and I found a picture I'd seen a thousand times before in reproduction, but as is so often the case, I had yet to really see it. Three panels: the Annunciation of the Holy Motherhood by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin in the center, flanked on either side by devout onlookers to the left and Joseph the Carpenter in his workshop to the right. A technical marvel, it's masterfully rendered in oil from a time when the medium was still in its infancy. I have yet to find a reproduction that will do it justice, but the picture is revelation, both literally and figuratively.

I've heard stories of people breaking down before a Mark Rothko. Now, I like Rothko as much the next guy, but give me a break! You want a reason to weep, go stand in front of the Campin Annunciation for twenty minutes and really look. Afterwards, try to remember why you ever thought Mark Rothko was a painter of note. Maybe you can do it. Maybe a lot of people can. I sure as hell can't. I couldn't that day, and I can't now.

I don't mean to say that the Campin has no equal, or that the Rothko lacks the power to move. I've stood in the middle of a room full of Rothko pictures and bathed in the depths of his blues and oranges; I have stood there, closed my eyes, filled my lungs with air, and felt myself falling into those fields of color, and I have been moved. But on this day, as I stood before that gloriously crafted and unassuming triptych, I stared into its turbulent world of spatial anomaly, of allegory and riddle, of symbolism and iconography, and of blind humility in the presence of the extraordinary, and I was pulled in, and my eyes were opened. I've since found that I do some of my best looking when my eyes are open.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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