Sometimes, when you’re stuck on the “A” Train between 168th Street and 175th Street — that curve in the subway track that always makes the train squeal like a banshee from hell and you wish to god only dogs could hear it — and there are 43 high school kids riding home from class and making a party on the train at the top of their 86 lungs, and two or three winos are sleeping on the seats, so you have to stand, and you can’t really tell if that twitchy man who got on your car at 145th Street is carrying a knife or a letter opener — sometimes you wonder whether the 20th Century has really been worth it.
If only there were a way to go back in time to the 17th Century, or the 15th, or what the heck, the 12th Century. Ah, but there is. Just tough out the train ride to 190th Street and take the elevator up from the bowels of the station, the elevator pasted with 50 or 60 cute photographs of kitty cats and puppy dogs — and the tag-team New York Transit Authority elevator operators who taped them there and operate the elevator from behind the walls of a corrugated cardboard box “office” they imported into the elevator — and step out into the fresh air of Fort Tryon Park at the northern tip of Manhattan.
It is a short walk through the greenery and over the black basalt outcroppings to the Cloisters.
The Cloisters is a place of cold stone, vaulted ceilings and stained glass, only not stained the way the windows are stained on the “A” train.
Opened in 1938, the Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and contains part of its Medieval collection. It is a castle on the Hudson River on a stony prominence overlooking Dyckman Street. It is a rent in time.
It is a sort of monastery built from sections of 12th and 13th Century French and Spanish cloisters, reassembled in New York City. Inside, you can set in stony silence in a Gothic chapel and watch the play of light on the stained glass windows and contemplate the tomb effigies of noblemen and their wives.
The best part of the Cloisters is that it is so far from the city’s “museum row” along Fifth Avenue that few tourists trouble to make the trip and it is thus one of the least crowded major museums in America.
But the trip will be worth your while. Inside the stone edifice are the famous Unicorn Tapestries, the gargoyled column capitals of the Cuxa Cloister and a boxwood rosary bead no larger than an inch and a half in circumference, but which splits in half and opens into a triptych of carved biblical scenes with more than 40 tiny figures sculpted into it.
I try to visit the Cloisters each time I find myself in New York, usually on the final day of my trip, when I am exhausted by the stress and energy of the great crowded noisy squealing smelly city. The Cloisters is a refuge, a place to regain the center of your being, the unmoving axis of the earth.
You first see the place — or see its tower — as you wind the paths of Fort Tryon Park past the beech trees and the retirees feeding squirrels. They are very fat squirrels.
But there, over the treetops, it seems farther away than it is. As you get closer the path takes you up to a tiny door in the bottom of the castle and you go in, up some stone steps and up to the admissions booth. Pay the fee, get your museum map and step into the 12th Century.
The main hall at the entrance is a modern piece of architecture, but evoking the style of the Middle Ages. It is a tall hexagonal vaulted dome. Off to the side are the bookshop in one direction and the Romanesque Hall to the other. From there, you can take a side trip to the Fuentiduena Chapel, the St. Guilhem Cloister and the Pontaut Chapter House.
Each of them was collected in Europe, taken down stone by stone, with each piece carefully numbered, shipped to New York and rebuilt as part of the sprawling museum. In some cases, the originals were in ruins or only partially surviving and the museum has fleshed out the missing parts in the proper style.
On a cold October day, the sandstone is icy to the touch and the low-hanging sun outside throws the shadows of the surrounding trees up against the stained glass, making a second web of leading swaying against the motionless first
There are four things I never miss on a visit.
The first is the Gothic Chapel, which is a modern recreation of an 11th Century chapel, filled out with statues and stained glass. It is quiet as a tomb, and I always find a seat on the stone and sit quietly for 20 minutes or a half hour, waiting for the occasional visitor to pass through and bring me silence once again.
It is hard to believe a place this still can exist in a city this impatient.
In the center of the chapel is the tomb of the chevalier Jean d’Alluye, who died in 1248. On top of the sarcophagus lies the effigy of the knight, with his palms pressed together in prayer and his chain-mailed feet resting on a small stone lion. Jean had been to the Holy Land during a crusade in 1240 and had brought back what he believed was a piece of the true cross. He was originally entombed at the abbey of La Clarte-Dieu, near Le Mans, which he had built in 1239.
The second station of my ritual is the room containing the Unicorn Tapestries. These seven giant weavings depict the hunt and capture of a unicorn and are also allegorical of the suffering and crucifixion of Christ.
The last of these tapestries, the Unicorn in Captivity, is the most popular. A poster of it is sold at the gift shop. The unicorn rests in a circular corral resting on a field of hundreds of flowers, a particular style called “millefleur,” or “Thousand flowers” in French. The millefleur is more stylized than naturalistic, but it does demonstrate a quality that is particularly Medieval, and a quality I especially respond to.
The Medieval mind didn’t care much for artistic unity. They never generalized in their artwork. The later Renaissance loved to make a landscape of generalized trees, although you can never quite tell what kind of tree they mean. In a Medieval piece, like this millefleur, you can name every single plant by genus and frequently by species.
They may sit on a flat black field, but there is the strawberry, the columbine, the daisy, the iris, no two alike.
That same impulse can be found in the next stop, the intimate Trie Cloister, which is open to the weather. A cloister is a garden surrounded by a stone walkway bordered with columns. What marks it as Medieval, specifically Gothic, is that no two column heads are the same. Every one of the 20-plus double columns has a different capital, and they run from tragic to comical.
The ancient Greeks would have been horrified by this lack of unity: They built their temples so that all the columns and capitals matched. The Renaissance that came later was shocked: They, too liked uniformity of effect. They were so put off by the helter-skelter design of the age that preceded them, that they named it Gothic, which is to say, barbarian.
Yet, the profusion of styles all yoked together gives the impression of profound fecundity. The Medievals lived in a world made vivid by its variety: the wealth of animals, of plants, of social classes, of biblical stories. There are kings and saints on these capitals; there are dancing bears and demons; acanthus leaves and oak leaves. There are trade union labels and a man in a funny hat.
It is a sense of rich profusion, and one I find myself deeply sympathetic towards, which is why the cloister is a mandatory stop, again for 20 minutes or so, to soak it all in, like a deep breath of air.
The final required stop is the herb garden. I am a sucker for herb gardens, especially the highly regimented kind that the Middle Ages were so fond of. The herb garden at the Cloisters is in the form of a cross, with beds of herbs surrounding the four central quince trees.
In October, the quince are ripening to a mottled yellow, looking something halfway between apples and pears. Their subtle fruity smell is exquisite.
Whenever I find myself in an herb garden, I always nip off tiny bits of the leaves and crush them between my fingers under my nose. The smell of the lavender, sage, thyme, borage or camphor wakes up that olfactory sense that you do your best to put to sleep in the grimy downtown.
It is for me, as it was for the Medievals, as perfect a model of Paradise as can be found on earth. Paradise is a Persian word for garden, and it is only proper that our culture has taken it over to name the single plot of earth that remains unmolested by the clutter, noise and ambition of the everyday world we inhabit.
There are dozens of other attractions at the Cloisters, every one of them worthy of your whole attention. I mention only the tapestry of the stag hunted by old age, which is the equal of the Unicorn tapestries, or the 15th Century wooden pieta, which makes the dead Christ seem more like a lifeless piece of meat than any other pieta I’ve seen, only heightening the pity we feel looking on at Mary’s sorrow.
So, if you are lucky, you can carry back with you into the city some of the stillness of the Cloisters, and until it wears off, hold onto the unmoving center of the universe.