The Cloisters

By Gabriela Godlewski (CE ‘19)

One of the main reasons I write about museums for The Pioneer is so the students of Cooper, especially the students new to the area, can get to know some engaging local spots when they want to take a break from academia. Normally, these places are pretty close to Cooper for convenience sake.

This article is going to be a little different. I recently visited The Cloisters as part of my art history class. Located in Washington Heights, it’s definitely a ways from the East Village, but by all means it is worth a visit.

The Cloisters is a faction of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and primarily dedicated to medieval European art and architecture. Not only does The Cloisters host an extensive collection of medieval European pieces from paintings to tombstones to religious artifacts, but the building itself was designed to look like a medieval French castle. There are several outdoor areas, including a garden dedicated to species of plants used in medieval medicine, magical practices, and cooking.

The museum was founded through the combined efforts of George Grey Bernard, a sculptor and collector passionate about medieval art, and John D. Rockefeller, millionaire and philanthropist. Bernard had an extensive collection of medieval art and sold parts of his collection to Rockefeller, who then purchased a plot of land in Fort Tryon Park and donated it to the city. The museum was built on top of this land to house the collection, with construction concluding in 1939.

I visited The Cloisters on a class trip to view a few pieces that we had discussed extensively. Getting to The Cloisters from the train station involves walking through Fort Tryon Park, which offers a breathtaking view of the Hudson. The interior of the museum was stunning, not only because of the art, but because the architecture was truly reminiscent of medieval European architecture. It felt like being in a castle, and reminded me of the castles I saw in Poland. The works were equally as stunning.

The Cloisters boasts a collection of handwoven tapestries and medieval clothing as well as hand-painted altar pieces, statues, stained glass windows, and illuminations with pages smaller than my hand. An entire room was dedicated to unicorn tapestries, with each tapestry portraying a scene in an unfortunate encounter between humans and an unlucky unicorn. A lot of the paintings had motifs of gardens or plants, and the outdoor areas of the museum seemed to pay tribute to such works

The weather was perfect for enjoying the outdoor portions of the museum. I thought it was very cool to be surrounded by plants specifically chosen for their ties to the time period so heavily explored in the Cloisters. The trees in the garden were also grafted in such a way that they looked like the way trees were often portrayed in medieval illuminations and illustrations. The entire experience was eerie, surreal, a little bit nostalgic, and all-around fascinating.

Although Fort Tryon Park isn’t the most convenient location relative to The Cooper Union, it was refreshing to get out of the East Village and go to a place closer to nature. Tickets are pay-as-you-want, and the crowds were small on my Friday visit. My favorite part of the museum was the garden itself. Not only will the visit call for a pleasant stroll through the park, but there will also be access to all the beautiful artworks the museum has to offer. Putting the books down and setting aside a portion of the weekend to visit the Cloisters is a worthwhile decision that I highly recommend while the fall weather is still here.

To find out more about the museum, including special exhibits and hours, visit

Leave a Reply