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The Middle Ages in Manhattan

At the Cloisters, in Upper Manhattan, James Lasdun’s gothic fantasies are reawakened

James Lasdun | September/October 2013

“It's all wrong,” I imagine my architect father saying as I walk from the 190th Street subway exit at the northern end of Manhattan, and see the pantiled roofs and Italianate bell tower of the Cloisters Museum rising through the trees ahead of me. A purist in aesthetic matters, my father (who designed London’s National Theatre) would not have approved of this agglomeration of architectural fragments scavenged from various corners of Europe. A French Gothic chapter house here, a Romanesque apse from Spain there; cloister arches from one monastery, held up on pillars from another, with statuary from a third; all connected by faux-medieval passages of Manhattan schist (excavated for the New York subway) and Connecticut granite, and presenting itself as some sort of walled Cistercian abbey that happened to have been built on the Hudson a century before Columbus…It’s just all wrong.

"Mumford liked it," I retort mentally (Lewis Mumford was one of the few architectural critics my father admired), but there’s no getting away from it: there is something iffy about the Cloisters. Not the art and artefacts exhibited inside, which are astounding by any measure, but the place itself. It isn’t quite kitsch, but it isn’t quite kosher either.

Which is possibly why I find myself so drawn to it. I’ve been fascinated by medieval art and literature for most of my life, but the fascination has always been more a kind of dreamy wallowing in atmosphere than anything rigorously historical. Its origins can be clearly traced to the school I went to at eight. The dining room was frescoed with scenes from Arthurian legend. The stone chapel was covered in coats of arms and chiselled Latin inscriptions. The English and music teacher, a wonderful man named (fittingly) Mr Monk, happened to be one of England’s foremost makers of medieval instruments. The racks on the walls of his workshop were hung with crumhorns, flageolets and vast, undulating, black serpents, one of which he can be seen playing, dressed as a sinister cleric, in Ken Russell’s film "The Devils". He got me reading Chaucer and Sir Gawain, and taught me to play the cornette, a primitive horn fingered like a recorder. I still have the one he gave me (it makes a ridiculous farting sound straight out of some Monty Python medieval burlesque).

Later, Hermann Hesse’s "Narcissus and Goldmund" fell into my adolescent psyche like a fatal charm. An unworldly but also hedonistic teenager, I identified with each of the two friends: the ascetic Narcissus who retreats to a cloister, and the sensuous, proto-hippie Goldmund who goes on the road as an itinerant woodcarver (this is from memory: I don’t dare reread the book in case it’s as bad as people say). For a period I took up woodcarving myself, hacking crude sprigs of foliage into the logs in my parents’ fireplace. Even my more conventional teenage fantasy, of running off to join a commune, had an antique colouring. The commune I pictured was all stone walls, gardens, music: basically a monastery, with girls.

Between all that and a ludicrously impractical A-level in medieval history, I spent my teens immersed in a kind of inner theme park of the Middle Ages. All of which is to say that when I first started visiting the Cloisters after moving to New York in my 20s, I was well primed to appreciate the place.

Just getting there is a pilgrimage. You take the A train through Harlem and Washington Heights, almost to the end of the line, and then walk through the gardens of Fort Tryon Park, high above the river. The remoteness from other New York tourist spots keeps the crowds away, and inspires a contemplative mood that subdues even the occasional busload of schoolchildren. Rockefeller money paid for the museum in its present incarnation, but it has its origins in the collection of the sculptor George Grey Barnard, who shipped it from France to New York in 1913 with a view to founding a museum "where the 'spirit of Gothic' could once more cast its spell". Kitsch or not, great care has been taken over the atmospherics. Informational clutter is kept to the minimum, as are glass cases and other protective barriers. Most of the objects stand naked against bare stone walls, which makes for a feeling of intimate contact. Daylight is used as much as possible to light them, and every hour a bell tolls with an authentically cracked tone. The effect is to transport you into some idealised pre-modern zone in which the decorative impulse exists in defiance of conditions of deep austerity, and is all the richer for it.

I’m remembering my first visit as I return a quarter of a century later. I’d thought I was on a strictly cultural mission, but it turned out to be as much about nostalgia as art appreciation. The Glass Gallery’s 15th-century carving of Mary Magdalenea virtuoso celebration of female beauty in fox-red lindenwood, with deep, sensual folds and involutions of drapery and a little slippered foot protruding belowplunged me back into Goldmund’s erotic woodcarving ecstasies. The wattle-fenced medicinal herb gardens (complete with opium poppies) laid out around four quince trees in the Bonnefont Cloister, could have been teleported straight from my imaginary commune. On the right-hand panel of Robert Campin’s Mérode Altarpieceone of those hyper-realist Dutch paintings that set other-worldly events (in this case the Annunciation) against the most this-worldly of backdrops—the figure of Joseph at his workbench, surrounded by the precision tools of a 15th-century master-carpenter, could have been Mr Monk in his workshop. Joseph is fashioning a mousetrap, not a musical instrument, but the aura of repose, of deep fulfilment through the practice of meticulous craftsmanship, reminds me even today of my old teacher.

I’m not as beguiled by that sense of stillness and repose as I once was. There was probably always something regressive about my attraction to it; a flinching from modern life. One way or another that particular tendency has been knocked out of me. For years I didn’t go near the Cloisters. The fantasies it fed into seemed to have run their course.

Then my old friend, the poet Robin Robertson, gave me a copy of Odell Shepard’s "The Lore of the Unicorn", an extraordinary compendium of classical and medieval arcana, and I could feel the interest stirring again.

The Unicorn Tapestries are the main draw of the Cloisters collection. John D. Rockefeller saw them when they were sent to New York from France for an exhibition in 1922. "I merely lingered five minutes to satisfy my eye with the beauty and richness of their colour and design," he wrote with billionaire grandiosity, "and bought them forthwith." I’d looked at them of course; noted those rich colours and designs, admired the spectacular workmanship (up close you can see individual hairs on the hunting dogs’ muzzles), but hadn’t given them much thought. Unicorns were a stretch, even for me.

But Shepard’s book stripped away whatever tinselly associations I’d built up around these creatures, and restored them to their original cultural context, in which they played a much more interesting role than I’d ever imagined. "Animals are good to think with,” wrote Claude Lévi-Strauss. Mythical animals may be even better. Essentially, unicorns were the medieval world’s way of thinking about the curious affinity between apparent opposites: purity and corruption, love and hate, good and evil.

I happened to be writing a novel, "The Horned Man", in which precisely those kinds of volatile polarities were going to play a key part. It would be possible, I hoped, to read my protagonist as either a saint or a monster, or both. The book was still in its early stages: I knew the protagonist taught gender studies at a college outside New York, and that he might or might not have committed a series of brutal murders, but I hadn’t figured out much else. One thing I needed was a fresh perspective on the underlying theme of sexual politics, which was already a little well-worn. What I found in Shepard, and through him in the Unicorn Tapestries themselves, was the strange, flower- and blood-spangled medieval fantasy of the unicorn hunt, which seemed to offer both a bright foil to the drabness of my suburban setting, and an unexpected frame of reference for my own rather bloody drama.

I’d known, vaguely, of the Christian symbolism of the unicorn in legend. What was news to me was the demonic side. The gentle creature turns out to have a murderous alter ego; a fact implicitly acknowledged in the painterly tradition of depicting it as the only animal in Noah’s ark without a mate. Atrocissimum est Monoceros, wrote the third-century Roman encyclopedist Julius Solinus: "Cruellest of all is the Unicorn, a monster that bellows horribly…"

Realising I’d unearthed a kind of mythic template for my protagonist, I found myself returning to the Cloisters for a series of visits during which the whole novel started coming feverishly together. Inevitably these visits seeped into the story itself. In the climactic scene, my hero makes a frantic trip to the museum in search of a clue to the murders for which he believes he is being framed. Entering the tapestry room in a state of high agitation, he half-hallucinates a film-like continuum of action out of the seven stilled images of the hunt, seeing it flow past him in all its gory violence and uncanny beauty. Stumbling out, he finds himself in a special exhibition devoted to the medieval cult of the Virgin, and curated (the book is nothing if not melodramatic) by his estranged wife, who has him seized by guards.

You don't have to be in a state of hallucinatory agitation to appreciate the museum. Nor do you have to be interested in unicorns. The collection has plenty of other wonders to admire. There are 14th-century Carinthian stained-glass windows (through which you can watch 21st-century cement barges glide down the river). There are rosary beads that hinge open onto "micro-carved" Bible scenesangels on pinheads, almost. In a dim-lit vault the illuminations of the Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours and the "Cloisters Apocalypse" gleam with unearthly brilliance. There are stone columns carved to look like running water. There is a Parisian ivory disc showing knights attacking the Castle of Love and ladies hitting them with flowers. Wandering through the medieval gardens you can acquaint yourself with cardoons and pomegranate blossoms and flowering stavesacre (a remedy for lice). Almost as appealing as the collection itself is the modesty of its scale: you can see everything in a few relaxed hours.

But speaking for myself, I can’t come back without succumbing to the faint delirium I experienced here a decade ago, especially as I revisit the tapestries. I have to admit I enjoy it. I like the feeling of having incorporated these medieval objects and ideas into a tale of contemporary America, and of having been taken over by them in turn. The huntsmen blasting on their horns (which strongly resemble my cornette), the image of pure paranoia presented by "The Unicorn is Attacked" with its spears coming in from every direction, the sly-eyed maiden who subdues the unlucky animal in "The Unicorn is Captured", the amazing millefleur backgrounds of blossoming plants and flowers, have a charged familiarity for me unlike any other works of art.

I look for the Virgins my protagonist found himself surrounded by after leaving the unicorns (there is a peculiar love-hate relationship between virgins and unicorns, hence this scene). Like him, though without the histrionics, I pass by Madonnas in maple and worm-pocked walnut; sceptred and statuesque with baby Jesus on their arms, or with his rack-ribbed corpse across their laps: testaments to the quasi-pagan phenomenon that Protestants were later to brand "Mariolatry". My favourite is a 12th-century birch-wood carving in the Langon Chapel. Mary’s absent expression and slightly hunched posture give her a strikingly natural presence. Devoid of any saintly or divine pretensions (and lacking the extravaganzas of drapery that became the rage a century or so later), she’s like every young mother you’ve ever seen in a doctor’s waiting room.

It turns out the museum is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. They’re marking it with a special exhibition on unicorns. The contents look familiar, and I breeze through, assuming I have nothing new to learn. Then a 16th-century Dutch print by Julius Goltzius catches my eye; one of four depicting the known continents, each featuring some kind of emblematic chariot. Asia’s is drawn by camels, Europe’s by horses, Africa’s by lions. The figure in the American chariot is a woman in Native American dress, and her chariot is drawn by a pair of unicorns. What could this possibly mean? Had the European imagination already begun projecting that potent myth-ology into its idea of the New World, 500 years ago?

I leave, pondering the question. Outside, an electric portcullis in the museum’s ramparts opens to let in a delivery van. The sight, so bizarre and so American, seems mysteriously connected, and I stare, transfixed, wondering if my medieval/modern conceit, which I’d thought so original, had been pre-empted; implicit all along in this fantastical construction.     

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