Today I woke up with a terrible cold. After blundering around the sleep-funnel back and forth for a while, I decided that I couldn’t stand staying in bed when it was so sunny outside, even if I had to suffer for it later.
I’d been meaning to go to the Cloisters for a while- the part of the Met museum that’s way uptown and houses all the medieval artifacts and art- so in a haze of snuffles and anti-cold medicine, I made my way through the sunshine to Penn Station, and boarded the M4 bus uptown, as instructed by my guidebook.
The bus takes you along Madison Avenue, past a bunch of stores I will never shop in (Ralph Lauren, Cartier, ‘American Girl’ – dear lord, I wish I’d never found out about that one). At every stop, hundreds of elderly women, crinkly and powdered, got on, and hundreds got off. (The women got more crinkly and less powdered as we went uptown.)
The bus takes a good hour and a half to get to the Cloisters, but it’s worth it for the view of the city you get from the road. I thought about how for the entire year I’d lived here, I’d basically spent most of my time scurrying underground on the subway, like a hamster in a maze- it’s quicker, but much more boring. Now, watching the lurid shop frontages for 99 cent stores and the equally lurid frontages for designer boutiques, and the sweaty joggers and the gardeners and the screaming taxi drivers and the laughing couples in the sun from the bus window, I realised I’d been missing out on ‘being in New York’- the subway feels like a New York experience, but it’s really just another circle of hell, and I could happily do without it.
The M4 takes you all the way to the museum door, at the end of a cul-de-sac, high above the Hudson River in a pool of leafy quiet. Most people have got off by the time you get there; I was so quiet in the back of the bus all by myself that the bus driver stopped for a toilet break at the bottom of the park, thinking the bus was empty. He was just getting out of his seat when I emerged from the back of the bus, and he jumped a mile. “Damn girl! I didn’t know you was there…Mind if I go to the restroom?’
The Cloisters sits in Fort Tryon park, which was created by Rockefeller to house the museum (he also bought a bunch of land to preserve the view from the Cloisters- nice one, Rocky, it looks pretty good).
To get into the museum you pay what you wish (suggested entry fee is $25; I paid $24, I’m not sure what came over me there). It is peaceful and shadowed; you often end up in rooms by yourself, staring at a statue of Jesus full in the face, which tends to make me feel very self-conscious.
Stone columns, frescoes, paintings and statues are placed tastefully in large rooms. Not too many Americans get Easter Monday off, so the place wasn’t crowded, but there were enough people around to make me feel comfortable.
I moved around slowly drinking it all in- trying to work out whether I felt bad about the idea of walking around northern Manhattan looking at artifacts taken from medieval European cathedrals and historical sites- and decided that I didn’t, really. First, because modern-day France has no more or less in common with medieval France than modern-day America; I figure both societies have equal right to gaze upon history- whether or not they sit on top of the same geographical square footage as the sculptors and stonemasons were sitting when they created the pieces. Second, there is an interesting dimension added when one is simultaneously looking at medieval sculptures, and at the history of super-rich collectors like Rockefeller who were such an integral part of America’s growth; you can’t help wondering what was driving them to collect this stuff, what would have happened to it if they hadn’t shipped it home at great expense and built satin-lined cases for them to keep them safe.
And: selfish reasons. To come from frenetic downtown Manhattan and emerge into this airy, quiet stone-walled oasis, with birds chirruping outside, and pools of sunlight resting on the golden courtyards, is, well, nice. It calmed me in a way that I don’t remember feeling when visiting similar sites in Europe (conversely, when I visited similar sites in Europe, I wasn’t living and working in New York, so perennial shredded nerves and sleeplessness wasn’t quite so much a condition of my existence, I guess). Whatever, I liked it a lot.
In a large, cool stone room, I was thrilled to find the Unicorn Tapestries (along with an elderly Chinese lady, who I’d embarrassingly achieved ‘museum sync’ with and kept silently encountering- we couldn’t seem to escape each other and had just given up trying). I have to admit I had no idea they were here. It took me aback because I know them well- I realised my grandfather, Trevor, has prints of them hanging on the wall of his living room in his cottage in the UK. I had spent years with them; they were the background to happy firelit Christmases, and warm Sunday afternoons doing the Observer crossword- lying on the carpet as Grandad sat in his armchair and looked things up in his encyclopedia to help me cheat; and drinking champagne to toast weddings and exam results and birthdays. My mum had just told me the day before that my Grandad Trev had fallen and hurt himself, and that he would be fine, but was kind of down, because he couldn’t walk a lot at the moment. He is a super-independent guy, and it would really piss him off not to be able to cycle to the shops, or head out for a walk to the park, so I’d been thinking about him that day anyway. It was nice to be reminded of him again.
Looking at the tapestries, I started thinking about my grandfather, about how he’d spent so much time with me and my sister when we had just arrived as nervous Australian kids in the UK back in the late 90s. He’d given up his precious solitude to spend time with us- before we started high school, when neither of us knew anyone and the long summer holidays stretched before us like blank sheets. He was generous and kind and helped us fill the time without once letting on how much of an irritation he probably found us. I remembered how he would take us out cycling, and bully us up steep hills. In his late sixties, he was far fitter than my sister and I, since our favourite hobbies at the time (art, reading, writing, television) mostly involved expending about as much energy as a hibernating slug.
As I stood in the gift shop, buying a postcard of the tapestries so I could write to my Grandad Trev, I overheard a man with a gentlemanly, pointed white beard say to his wife: “You know…I never realised before, that the unicorn is tied up and wounded in that picture, because it’s been hunted. I guess you have to see the piece in context to realise it.” I had seen the piece in context, and I hadn’t realised it. Looking it up online, later, I see the Metropolitian Museum isn’t having any of that nonsense:
The unicorn could escape if he wished. Clearly […] his confinement is a happy one, to which the ripe, seed-laden pomegranates in the tree—a medieval symbol of fertility and marriage—testify. The red stains on his flank do not appear to be blood, as there are no visible wounds like those in the hunting series; rather, they represent juice dripping from bursting pomegranates above.
Hmmm. not sure I buy it, Metropolitan Museum. The titles of the whole series of tapestries are rather suspicious, :
– The Hunters Enter the Woods (plural hunters, one unicorn)
-The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn (capture is ok it’s just like they’re playing hide and seek, it’s fun)
-The Unicorn is Found (uh-oh, I guess we lost him but now we found him again, this is suuuper fun!)
-The Unicorn is Attacked (ok still having fun just a little mad about losing him before but still totes having fun with this)
-The Unicorn Defends Itself (hahaha come on, you can take ’em, unicorn! playfighting is fun …oh no.)
-The Unicorn is Killed and brought to the Castle (don’t cry darling, they killed him quickly I’m sure and it didn’t hurt. Now time for bed. Oh ffs…)
-The Unicorn is in Captivity and No Longer Dead (seriously now stop crying the unicorn is fine. It’s just pomegranate juice)
I guess the last instalment (the tapestry pictured above) is sort of the medieval tapestry equivalent of ‘Rover’s gone to live on a lovely farm in the country where he can chase balls all day,’ but who cares- it’s a beautiful thing, and I was so glad I’d seen it in real live close-up.
Travelling home felt like a trip home from the seaside when I was a child; tired, gazing out of the window in the comforting knowledge that a warm house and a comfortable bed were waiting, and that everything was okay.
Other beautiful pieces in the museum (and there are hundreds more)