Thursday, November 13, 2003

It is an odd hybrid, a mixture of styles and of stones. Resting above a wide and slow river on the hill of an overwhelmingly populated city it thrones in detached solitude surrounded by trees, tall, arched bridges leading away from it. It is so carefully contrieved, so thoughtfully positioned in order to make place for highways, busses and security systems. The Cloisters attempts to be a medieval fortress/cloister in New York.

We walked through the stone rooms one slow afternoon. The elegant arches that should have led into halls where pillars soared towards the sky opened into flat, confusing rooms. Supports for pillars and vaults rested useless on the wall. Walled in and covered atriums were fenced with a mixture of pillars, stones from different quarries and in different styles - not the organic mix of a row of pillars growing together over time, but the confusing mix of styles close in time but separate geographically, suddenly put together. And the portals and doorways. Each room had a multitude of exits, little stairs going up or down, and lit from stained glass windows in yet an other style.

It was a walk through a fairytale medieval. This was the middle ages not as they would be lived in, but as they are written about or reproduced. Walking through the rooms I realised why they felt so familiar despite the disassociation with the medieval churches and castles of Europe. These were the medieval castles of fantasy. In fantasy literature and computer games there is always a convenient doorway, there is always a glaring gargoyle, there is always a forgotten relief or a beautiful tapestry in a small hall. And there are few fireplaces and even fewer nightpots or pits, toilets in the third floor with free fall into the moat - not to mention a total lack of disrepair. The best part was the gardens, where herbs were wilting as they should in October and old fashioned apples were ripe and falling from almost bare branches.

Yes, it is pretty: lovely pieces of art, singular paintings, treasures of gold, silver and precious stones and elegant manuscripts. And when we left the museum and walked through the park to the subway I noticed, amused, that we had chosen to walk through an area where a remarkable amount of single men were casually strolling or waiting under bridges, close to little paths off into the bushes or just leaning in striking poses against the wall. Somehow their carefully casual presence in the middle of an unkept park in office hours a common working day seemed much more natural and right to me than the contrieved past I had just left.