#128: MEDIEVAL IN NEW YORK. My introduction to the pleasures of medieval art came in the seventies, when a group of college friends and I went into New York for a few days, and one of the friends asked if I’d accompany her to the Cloisters, the medieval collection of the Metropolitan Museum nestled in the quiet of Fort Tryon Park. It was something of a conversion experience, an enthusiasm which has lasted the years since. In its pure-and-pristine appearance, the museum may give a somewhat cleaned-up, scrubbed-down sense of the period, as if the housewife of a Delft burgher had gone into a French cathedral with a mop and pail; an old publication, Medieval Monuments at the Cloisters: As They Were And As They Are (1972) shows the building elements in their original locales, some of which look pretty scrubby indeed. One should not quibble with riches; but a visit may not at first sight convey what a really odd, one-off sort of place it is: either a monument to the rich American collectors who picked the bones of Europe clean, or a blessed effort in cultural preservation (or, of course, both). In the early decades of the twentieth century, a collector named George Gray Barnard conceived of a mission to introduce his students to the beauties of medieval stone sculpture; through to the nineteen-thirties he and other collectors and curators brought over elements of European sacred architecture and eventually incorporated them into a newly-completed building, expanding the collection to tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, church vestments, carved ivories and wood, work in gold, silver and brass—a remarkably varied tour of the genius of the time. The works range from a Carolingian ivory of Saint John done in the northern Rhineland to a sculpture done of Saint Michael in Burgos in the sixteenth century, with its hint of the oncoming Renaissance. In the actual cloisters—the rectangular courtyards traditionally attached to a monastic church—the beautifully-tended gardens open the experience seamlessly into the open air, in contrast to the closed-off world of most museums. Indeed, the iconic image for me of the Cloisters has always been its carefully-espaliered pear tree, with its branches trained to an almost heraldic symmetry. The whole place breathes an air not quite of this planet but of the most benign part of the medieval Christian vision.
The Cloisters: Medieval Art and Architecture, by Peter Barnet and Nancy Wu (The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2005) is a compact guide, with splendid illustrations and an exceptionally readable text. (The only omission I regret is a beautiful sixteenth-century boxwood rosary bead from the Netherlands, two and a half inches round, which opens out to scenes of the Crucifixion and the Adoration of the Magi—a masterpiece in miniature. According to the Met website it’s not currently on display, alas.) A Walk Through the Cloisters, by Bonnie Young (1979), is an earlier edition of the guidebook. Of the older publications, a favorite of mine is The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, one of the most charming and modest of the reproduced books of hours. Masterpieces of Tapestry, by Genevieve Souchal (Metropolitan Museum) is the catalogue of the historic 1974 exhibit which showed both the “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries (from the Cloisters) and the “Lady and the Unicorn” set (in the Cluny, in Paris) together, possibly for the first and last time. The Unicorn Tapestries, by Margaret B. Freeman, is the definitive scholarly study of the New York set of tapestries. A Cloisters Bestiary, by Richard H. Randall (1974) is a recreation of the moralizing bestiaries of the period—lovely, with its own air of slightly loony earnestness. Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers: Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of the Cloisters, by Tania Bayard (1985) is a book full of period woodcuts and a flood of the most wonderful flower names, whose charm is accessible to the botanically ignorant and adept alike.
Not long ago, on a visit to the Yale Art Gallery in New Haven, an exceptionally bright young woman in our group, who’d been raised as a Quaker, admitted it was only recently that she’d understood that the figures in the medieval paintings on view were stories and fables that in their time would commonly have been recognized. The effects of being raised Catholic have been variously and rancorously debated, but one happy effect is that it can mean an open door to the iconography of medieval art. Once in a church in Spain, looking at a sculpture of one of the saints, some pincushion Sebastian or wheel-carrying Catherine, I asked one of my companions, who’d been raised Unitarian, if he had any idea of who he was looking at. “None whatsoever,” he answered cheerfully. (It’s times like those that it hits you how utterly bizarre some of this stuff must look: who is that fellow tied to a post, wearing a loincloth, and punctured severally with arrows? Why is that woman holding her eyes in her hands?) The man’s wife and myself, both of whom had been raised Catholic (and I’d attended a Catholic grade school), had grown up with a daily, not just a Sunday, familiarity with these images and the stories behind them—it was a world we knew. We’d even been given the translated tatters of what used to be called “a classical education”—a familiarity with the myths of Greek and Latin culture, often in wooden English retellings, and an adolescent push through the roadposts of its literature. Of course, a great deal of all that gets forgotten, though not, perhaps, the basic shape of the worlds we’d been sent into. In any case, there are always books. If, like my friend, you’re wondering who on earth those people in the old masters’ paintings are, and why they are doing those, ahem, unusual things (why is that naked lady standing on a scallop shell?), you can’t do better than buy a copy of How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters, by Patrick De Rynck (Abrams, 2004), a terrifically entertaining and beautifully produced guide for the perplexed. It’s a compendium, with reproductions, of some 180 paintings ranging from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, and it acknowledges, without getting all huffy about it, that people now often are not “sufficiently familiar with the Christian and Classical pictorial traditions on which European painters drew so heavily and for so many centuries.” He’s unafraid of the basic and obvious—he explains baptism, for instance, and enumerates the sacraments—but he also catches nuances you’re likely to miss. (After years of loving Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, for instance, I’d never noticed that the husband is on the left, nearer the outside world, where the man would do his work, and the woman is on the inside, symbolic of her domestic role.) Each painting gets two pages (the Sistine Chapel rates eight pages), with a wonderment of detail reproductions, and the whole book is a great bag of chips—you’re always tempted to keep going, to see what’s next. Being Dutch, maybe, just maybe, De Rynck puts in a few more Flemish paintings than others might; but work by work, his inclusions are hard to argue with. Some paintings are beyond easy explanation, of course: watch him trying to wrap his head around Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (rather like the fun of a little booklet I have from the Prado attempting to explain Goya’s Black Paintings, with the screeching sound of an intellectual car crash on each page.) But De Rynck’s book is completely successful—art history as the answers to a trivia quiz, and a marvelous and easygoing combination of information and pleasure.
P.S. An addendum on medieval gardens. One of the poems that has for years been one of my favorites from Helen Waddell’s book Medieval Latin Lyrics is a set of verses sent by Walafrid Strabo, a ninth century monk, to his abbot, Grimold:
A very paltry gift, of no account,
My father, for a scholar like to thee,
But Strabo sends it to thee with his heart.
So might you sit in the small garden close
In the green darkness of the apple trees
Just where the peach tree casts its broken shade,
And they would gather you the shining fruit
With the soft down on it; all your boys,
Your little laughing boys, your happy school,
And bring huge apples clasped in their two hands.
Something the book may have of use to thee.
Read it, my father, prune it of its faults,
And strengthen with thy praises what pleases thee.
And may God give thee in thy hands the green
Unwithering palm of everlasting life.
These verses, it turns out, are the preface to a small verse work on gardening, now usually referred to as the Hortulus. Strabo is one of those figures that just barely survives from the medieval period, like one of those carved figures staring out at us from the old cathedral pillars. No separate book exists about him, though there is a chapter devoted to him in Eleanor Duckett’s Carolingian Portraits (Michigan, 1962; its text can be found online). Happily, an inexpensive edition of the Hortulus with an English translation by James Mitchell is in print from Ithuriel’s Spear: On the Cultivation of Gardens: A Ninth Century Gardening Book. Virgilian in form but entirely medieval in spirit, Strabo’s piety has a practical turn to it and the faint rank smell of loam-stained hands and boots. Mitchell is a distant second in grace as a translator to Waddell, but he doesn’t botch it; the Hortulus is another of those precious minor classics whose charm has preserved it from loss.