Keeping Time

The Cloisters, a monastic museum where time is measured in centuries, is also a repository where there are always new things to discover. But for Dr. Barbara Drake Boehm, one of its curators, it’s all in a day’s work. “The thing that surprises me most is when… I meet someone who learns what I do and they say, ‘Oh, I love The Cloisters! I haven’t been there for 20 years,’” she said, adding, “something can be both permanent and dynamic.”

She’s right. The Cloisters may be deeply rooted in the past, but the museum also keeps current. There are programs for visitors with impairments, tours, lectures, concerts and, as part of its 75th anniversary celebration, an ambitious schedule of special exhibitions.

There’s much to lure visitors there during the holidays, too. Medieval-style decorations bring a festive touch to meditative spaces and gardens. The sounds of the Middle Ages fill the air. In addition to holiday concerts, there is Janet Cardiff’s musical installation, The Forty Part Motet. It’s astonishingly immersive and moving, providing an experience that can usually only be felt by the musicians themselves. Forty individual speakers arranged in the Fuentidueña Chapel emit 40 voices. The listener, moving among the speakers, personalizes the performance. “People are weeping in the gallery,” Dr. Boehm said.

Having spent almost all her career at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dr. Boehm has been at The Cloisters since 2008. A huge fan of both ice hockey and her home state’s Ohio Buckeyes, witty and fun-loving, Dr. Boehm sees works of art not only in their historical context, but also in how they can inform, enlighten and even entertain viewers today. “I don’t think people think of the Middle Ages and the adjective ‘fun’ at the same time…but they had fun.” To prove it, she points to the gorgeous and slightly risqué Monkey Cup of 1425, a masterwork of enamel on which a band of monkeys rob a sleeping man. “It’s hilarious,” she laughed. “Technically, it’s a complete marvel. But there’s no reason that has to go hand in hand with complete seriousness.”

Capturing stunning views across the Hudson, The Cloisters comprises three monastic cloisters, two chapels, stained glass and fountains all dating to the Medieval era. Like the building, the collection includes masterpieces and cathedral sculptures from the same period.

While every museum claims to have treasures, The Cloisters has so many it actually has a gallery called the Treasury to house them. There are chalices and reliquaries, jewel encrusted Bibles, richly gilded and illuminated manuscripts and secular objects. Amidst the gold and the silver, the jewels and pearls, is Jean Pucelle’s Book of Hours. It is, like Dr. Boehm, remarkably understated. It’s modest, unassuming and tiny, about the size of a credit card. “And yet,” she said, “the detail in this book is extraordinary…there’s a playfulness to it and a seriousness to it. And the religious scenes are intensely emotional… There are some works of art that are just workaday…they don’t affect me. But other times, I can cry in front of something really beautiful.”

Esthetically, it’s like stepping back in time. In the early 20th century, architectural elements, often abandoned, were found by the American sculptor George Grey Barnard and brought back home. Eventually John D. Rockefeller purchased them, along with the land now known as Fort Tryon Park and some 700 acres of the Palisades to preserve the view. He gifted the architecture and art to The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the park to New York. Then, whole chapels and sections were shipped over from Europe—primarily southern France—and reconstructed stone by stone, eventually joined by gardens meticulously and lovingly recreated from records of the period.

Here, you can walk along graceful, arched colonnades dating back more than a thousand years, sit on the same benches that were occupied by monks eight centuries ago and experience some of the serenity that has suffused these spaces for hundreds of years. “To have the experience that you have at The Cloisters elsewhere, you have to fly to Europe. So, if you want to know what that’s about… or if you want to refresh your sense of that—this is it,” Dr. Boehm stated. “And how surprising is it that that should be in Manhattan?”

SEE IT: The Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is located in Fort Tryon Park. Its holiday program includes spectacular decorations from its own gardens, concerts by acclaimed musicians and Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, through December 8th.

For more about Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, go to

words: Mary Gregory | photo: Max Flatow