I have an unusual number of early childhood memories that involve being dragged to museums by my art-loving mother. She would usually resign herself to the inevitable outcome: me sulkily plunking myself down on one of those 360 degree couches favored by museums and usually populated by old people and fat, fanny-pack wearing tourists. Eventually I got over this phase – for the most part – and learned to appreciate even unforced artistic outings. But it was not until recently that I learned the distinction between artistic experiences which one can merely appreciate and others for which one can develop a genuine affection. I can appreciate the Musée D’Orsay and the Tate, paintings by El Greco and sculptures by Rodin – enough so that I would happily revisit these museums and works of art. But they do not exactly have a lasting hold on my affections. The unlikely pair of art “experiences” that have captured my genuine sympathies are an exhibit: the Plaster Cast Courts at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum; and another out-of-the-way museum: the Cloisters, the medieval arm of the Met.
I first visited the Cast Courts when I was living in London. I went on my own one morning, scurrying past the expensive South Kensington stores I couldn’t afford and happily ending up in the V&A, a museum that only suggested a donation. I’m not sure how it happened but I think I identified the feeling of absolute dread welling up within me before I even realized where I was. It turned out I was in the West Plaster Court, which, in true Victorian fashion is jam-packed with plaster casts, mostly of Northern European and Spanish objects: medieval tombs, giant Spanish doors, statues and a huge, looming, bisected Trajan’s column. Despite its vaulted ceilings and skylights, the West Court was so crowded and Trajan’s column so huge, that the room still seemed dark, something the red walls did little to help. The feeling of these expertly-made copies crowding in on me in all their life-size plaster glory stayed with me for a long time after I left.
The East Court, which is mostly Italian, was a bit airier. It boasted a startlingly large cast of Michelangelo’s David (so, ahem, large, that when the modest Queen Victoria came to visit, museum officials had to scurry to find an appropriately concealing plaster fig leaf), as well as some rather elaborate doors and pulpits. But the impression of Trajan’s column was still fresh in my mind, and I fled, pledging I would never go back to the cast courts.
Except I’m pretty sure that before I left the V&A that first time, I bought a postcard of the Cast Courts. And the next time I went there, I couldn’t help but go to the Courts again. I have probably been back at least four or five times by now. Part of the appeal is the dreadful anticipation going there inspires within me. I also love thinking about how no one but the Victorians would have so zealously traveled around Europe, made casts of various sculptures, tombs, monuments, doors, pulpits and anything else they could lay their gypsum on and then haphazardly crowded them into two rooms in a museum named in honor of the only royal marriage the English seem to feel was at all worth commemorating.
Can’t make it around Europe? No worries. You get to see it all here at the Cast Courts, and a lot of the plaster casts are in better condition than the originals. Plus you don’t have to bother with long trips and languages you don’t speak. And after visiting the cast rooms, you can go have a reassuring cup of good old English tea in the William Morris room (another magnificent feature of the V&A).
My introduction to the Cloisters was less frightening but equally dramatic. I went with a class during my freshman year at Princeton, leaving at the beginning of what became the first major storm of the winter. By the time our bus had plowed its way along the New Jersey turnpike and across the George Washington Bridge, the Cloisters were blanketed in well over a foot of snow. Forgetting the large charter bus purring behind us, we could have been walking in a white world of long ago towards the (mostly) ancient snow-covered monastery in front of us.
The Cloisters itself ought not to be confused with the “mature adult retirement rental community” of the same name in central Florida. It is, instead, a striking if small museum (you can easily cover it in a couple hours) composed of five medieval French cloisters, which are basically quadrangles surrounded by covered walkways. Touring the museum is like traveling backward in time. Even though some of it is modern – built in 1931 – all of it feels like it’s from the middle ages. And most of it is. In addition to the cloisters themselves, the approximately 5000 works of art on display date from 800 A.D., with a particular emphasis on the Romanesque (early 12th century) and Gothic (13-15th century) periods.
One of the Cloisters’ particularly famous and lovely pieces is Robert Campin’s Mérode Altarpiece, a triptych dating from around 1426, whose central image is a beautifully detailed annunciation. Mary, in typical 15th century Flemish dress, sits reading her Scripture, while an angel kneels before her and a tiny cupid-like spirit comes shooting down from the upper right-hand corner, bearing a cross (and a symbolic insemination). The dimensions of the annunciation centre piece are slightly trippy. The vase on the table separating Mary from the angel seems in danger of sliding out of the painting, while the window in the back of the room opens out onto the sky. This is made more confusing by the wings of the altarpiece, which both depict activities taking place on the ground: on the right, an old and sexless Joseph works at his carpentry bench; on the left, in defiance of chronology, Campin’s dour-looking donor and his wife peek in at the annunciation from their 15th century Flemish town.
While the Campin altarpiece is one of the great treasures of the Cloisters, it is far from the only one. The museum is equally famed for its Unicorn tapestries, which also date from the late 15th century. Like the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, which hang at the Cluny, Paris’s great medieval museum, these Unicorn tapestries come from the famed workshops of South Netherlandish weavers (probably Flanders). Unlike the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, the Cloisters’ Unicorn tapestries are both more violent and allegorical, depicting the tragic hunt of the unicorn, who is no match for the jolly medieval hunting party that goes out to kill it. For less morbid fun at the Cloisters, there are always beautiful illuminated manuscripts, including some remarkably tiny yet detailed Books of Hours. And in the spring and summer, you can visit medieval gardens, planted in three of the five cloisters and designed according to information gleaned from medieval writing, poetry and art.
Because anything north of about 96th Street tends to signal “homicide” in Princeton student minds, the Cloisters’ location at the very top of Manhattan can be a deterrent. But you can quite easily and safely take the A train right from Penn station and get off at 190th Street. Be prepared for a remarkably ghetto subway station, which, from certain angles looks like its shut down (but isn’t). Once you escape that, however, you can take a bus or opt for a lovely – and even romantic, if you find the right person to accompany you – walk through Fort Tryon Park. Heading towards the Cloisters, it’s best to ignore the views of upper Manhattan and the Bronx that threaten your peripheral vision on the right. Look down to the Hudson Bay, which is surrounded by stunningly rocky, almost sublime cliffs or ahead to the Cloisters itself, which sits, slightly elevated, majestically awaiting your arrival.
On the surface, the V&A Plaster Cast Courts and the Cloisters don’t have much in common. But, on a larger scale, both seem to ask the question, “why not?” in a marvelous, almost saucy manner. Why not take various parts of medieval French monasteries and assemble them together on the upper tip of Manhattan? Why not take a plaster cast of Trajan’s column, transport it back to England and then cut it in half because it’s too tall to fit in the gallery in one piece? There is something about this audacious, art-loving mentality that makes me feel like the worlds cannot be that bad after all. It’s the emotionally complete version of the “why not?” of Lord Elgin (ie: why not just take half the Parthenon and haul it back to England? The barbaric Greeks won’t care. They’ll just blow it up, etc.) that somehow just doesn’t manage to fully captivate me in the same way. You don’t need a tour guide or those annoying ear phone thingys or even 360 degree couches to learn to love the Cast Courts and the Cloisters. And that is why I’m so attached to them.