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New Yorkers Experience Medieval Europe in Museum Exhibit


New York City's Manhattan can at times seem all business and flashy pleasure, a burgeoning island of skyscrapers and fast-paced modern life. But there are hidden treasures of history and tranquility awaiting quiet discovery there. One such spot is The Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art that allows people to experience medieval Europe without leaving the city. For producer Liu Enming, Elaine Lu has the story.

The Cloisters is perched on the northern tip of Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River.

"The Cloisters is a branch museum whose mission is to exhibit the art and the architecture of Western Europe and Romanesque Gothic period. The Cloisters is a rare opportunity to exhibit the art of the Middle Ages in an architectural setting that evokes medieval building," says Peter Barnet who is curator in charge of medieval art at The Cloisters.

He says the cloister was the central feature of the medieval monastery. It is a square garden court surrounded by a covered walkway. The museum features elements from five medieval cloisters from southern France.

Barnet says one man was instrumental in bringing them from across the Atlantic.

"This is done through the collection principally of a man named George Grey Barnard who around the turn of the century, around 1900, was living in France and was collecting large scale elements of medieval architecture. He was collecting doorways, columns, arches and even large sections of monastic cloisters," he said.

Barnard's collections form the nucleus of the museum. The entire collection comprises around 5,000 works of art dating back as far as 800 A.D, but focusing primarily on the 12th through 15th centuries.

The most celebrated pieces are the seven wall hangings known as the Unicorn Tapestries that depict the mythological hunt and capture of a Unicorn. They are alive with color, detail and unparalleled in craftsmanship. American philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated the tapestries to The Cloisters in 1937, one year before the museum opened to the public.

The Cuxa is the biggest cloister in the museum, featuring pink marble columns from a 12th century abbey in the French Pyrenees.

Surrounding the cloister are rooms, halls and chapels that showcase exquisite, medieval artifacts in addition to the architectural wonders they represent. One room in particular - the Chapter House - attracts many visitors. Barnet says Chapter House got its name because monks would sit and listen to one monk read aloud from one chapter from the monastic rulebook. It was also where other important matters were discussed and group confession took place.

Three of the cloisters feature gardens planted according to information found in medieval documentation.

Deirdre Larkin is the museum's associate horticulture manager. She says The Cloisters' gardens grow about 400 different species known and used in the Middle Ages.

"The plants in the Bonnefont Herb Garden are all useful plants and they are assigned to their beds by use. This large L-shape bed here is a bed of plants used as artist materials. The small square bed there is a bed of plants used for seasonings in the medieval kitchen. The large L-shape bed here is a bed of kitchen and salad plants. This bed here is a bed of plants for medieval medicine," she said.

Museum visitor, Julie Daniels says, "It's like a little oasis in the big city. I saw a lot of people when I was walking the ground sitting and reading. I saw a couple of people meditating. I saw a lot of kids coming to learn about art, learn about The Cloisters. But it's a little quiet enclave in the middle of a huge city."

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