In 1917 the land which it crowns high above the bucolic Hudson River was purchased by the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. who developed it into Ft. Tryon Park. He also bought parts of five European abbeys which were carefully disassembled, each stone marked to identify its proper place; they were reconstructed and integrated together in the park between 1934 and 1939 with additional buildings in medieval style designed by architect Charles Collens, assisted by Joseph Breck and James J. Rorimer. To begin the astonishing collection of medieval art, Rockefeller bought the huge collection of American sculptor George Gray Barnard. Rockefeller also donated from his own walls the world famous Unicorn tapestries. (Created in the 15th century, these remarkable tapestries were at one low point used to cover heaps of potatoes in France and then served as bed hangings.)Share
In 1958, a major new addition was added to the Cloisters Museum: a twelfth-century limestone apse from the church in Fuentidueña, Spain, also dismantled and reconstructed stone by stone.
For me it is a sacred rite to visit the Cloisters. When I enter the doors and climb the stairs, something inside me drifts into an awed silence. I feel it belongs to me but I know every other person there feels that as well, and that we share it.
Water plays from an old fountain; saints with stone faces worn dull watch us pass. In the Treasury, a space of a few small rooms, priceless illuminated prayer books which were used for prayer seven centuries ago look up at us; Crucifixes and reliquaries and tiny portable altars made of ivory small enough to fold into a pocket seem to listen for our steps. There is a very old staircase of wood and I am sure someone was about to descend as I came around the corner, someone who is not quite in this world anymore. It was after all the great scientist Einstein who wrote, “…the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” (Read more.)