When you visit The Met Cloisters, you think you have been whisked back in time to the Middle Ages, though really you are in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights in Manhattan.
The rooms of The Cloisters overflow with medieval art. The gardens in spring bloom with rare medieval plants. And there is a feeling of antiquity that you can’t experience in any other building in New York, except perhaps when standing in the solemn Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But one could say that The Cloisters museum is older than the Met building. Even though The Cloisters opened sixty-six years later, it is designed around cloisters from four medieval abbeys transported piece by piece from France to the United States. That means that if you a touch a marble pillar in one of the gardens’ covered walkways, a medieval monk may have once touched it too.
When I was a child growing up in New York, I visited the Cloisters on several occasions with my family. For a long time, my favorite part of the museum was the unicorn tapestries.
The tapestries look as if the artist depicted a true event he or she had observed. You almost believe that the milky-white, billy-goat bearded, horse-like creature with its tufted tail and slender horn once existed.
The tapestries are the Cloisters’ main attraction, and I remember that a crowd of visitors always filled that gallery. But there are many other gems at the museum.
On one visit, when I was perhaps twelve, a different piece of artwork captured my imagination. And it was all because of a security guard.
My family and I stepped into the room where the Mérode Altarpiece was on display. It is an oak-paneled triptych painted in oils that depicts the Annunciation.
In the middle panel, you see the angel Gabriel kneeling beside the Virgin Mary in a small room. She does not look at him. Her eyes are averted to the book in her hands. On the panel to her left, Joseph works in his carpenter shop. On the panel to her right, two people kneel in a garden outside her door (perhaps her mother and father).
I remember my brothers, my parents, and me gathering around the triptych. I think we were admiring the colors — the warm red of Mary’s dress, the deep blue of Joseph’s turban. Perhaps we also commented on how the artist had transposed the Biblical scene to 15th century Europe. We glimpsed a medieval city through Joseph’s window.
But then the security guard moved quickly toward us.
Had he thought we’d touched the triptych? Were we standing too close?
We drew back several steps, but he was smiling.
No, he just wanted to join us. He was pleased we were admiring the piece of art.
The triptych was clearly his favorite piece in the museum, and he knew every little twist and turn of its history, at least all that had not been lost to time.
I don’t remember now the specific words of the conversation. I recall something about how he had studied medieval art and had worked at the Cloisters for many years.
He pointed out little details in the painting. He revealed layers of meaning as if he were opening a Matryoshka doll.
The figures kneeling outside the door were not Mary’s parents, but most likely the donors who commissioned the painting. Do you see their coat of arms etched on the window?
And do you see that Joseph is crafting a mousetrap? It is perhaps a symbol of how God was setting a trap for the devil through Christ’s incarnation.
Do you see the rays of light pouring through the window and carrying the tiny figure of the Christ-child bearing a cross? The light is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, also embodied in a breath of wind that extinguishes the candle on the table.
His eyes shone as he spoke. He must have gazed at the scenes in the triptych countless times, but it had not grown old to him. It was ageless and wonderful. And he wanted to share it with us. He wanted us to understand fully the exquisiteness of its workmanship, its beauty.
Not only was it striking to the eye, but it could also be studied a thousand times and still offer something new to the viewer.
In the book What is Art?, Leo Tolstoy contemplated how to define art. He observed,
…However poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it)… A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist — not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art.
While I do not agree with all of Tolstoy’s conclusions in his book, those lines perfectly describe my family’s experience with the security guard at the Cloisters.
Across many years, that moment has stayed with me — that moment when a piece of artwork connected my family and me with a stranger. I do not think I will ever forget the infectiousness of the guard’s passion for that piece and how it was transmitted to us.
Though I do not know if I will ever see the Mérode Altarpiece in person again, even when I just see it in a photograph, I am still stirred by its beauty. And in my mind I picture the Flemish painter Robert Campin, attributed as the author of the work, bending over the center panel in his workshop and considering how he will retell in symbols the eternal truths of the story from the Bible.
He chooses the color of Mary’s gown, the color I gazed at as a child.
He cannot know his artwork will survive for close to six hundred years. Yet, he and his assistants work on it with such care that it is as if they did know, as if they created it especially for each person who will be moved by it down through the ages: for people like the security guard, who will protect it across these many years, and for the little girl in the twenty-first century who will see it in a museum and have its truths forever imprinted on her soul.
They in the past and we in the future converge — the painting a bridge between two moments in time.
Nicole Bianchi is a writer, copywriter, and storyteller at nicolebianchi.com. If you enjoyed this story, sign up to her email newsletter for more stories, writing tips, and literary-minded articles.
Here are more of her stories you might enjoy: