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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Visiting The Cloisters

I've lived just outside of New York City for years, but had never been to see The Cloisters until today. You'd think that my love of history, coupled with the professional connection to the medieval liturgical art and architecture at The Cloisters would have drawn me in before this. You might even think that someone who cared about me would have insisted that I go before now, but nobody ever did. At least not until my friend, Eric Anderson, suggested that Kimberly and I meet him and his two teenagers at the museum.

So, today, Kimberly and I drove across the George Washington Bridge and into Fort Tryon Park, arriving at the museum just as it was opening. We parked (for free!!!!) directly across the street from the front door and walked in, paid our admission, and were immediately immersed in one of the loveliest museums I've ever visited.

Back when I was newly married, I read through Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael mysteries. Sitting in the museum's recreated cloisters, looking at the gardens and listening to the water flow from the central fountains, it wasn't difficult to imagine the Welsh monk and his Benedictine brothers rising at midnight for Matins, then gathering again in the chapter house to hear the Rule of St. Benedict read to them. I could almost see my monastic friends going about their day's activities of quietly tending the gardens, picking leaves and berries to be used in illuminating manuscripts and harvesting herbs for medicine until their day ended with Compline.

The stained glass, stonework, statuary, paintings, and artifacts at The Cloisters brought the religious practices of the medieval era to life, but I was most impressed with the unicorn tapestries. I have seen their images many times on coffee mugs and totebags, but was really surprised at their size and at the quality of these 600 year old works of art, which depict the hunting of a unicorn as an allegory for Christ's death and resurrection.

Perhaps even more than the tapestries themselves, I was surprised at their history. During the French Revolution, these tapestries, which were already 400 years old at the time, were looted from the house of a French noble. These priceless treasures weren't stolen to be hung in the homes of the people who took them, though. Instead, in that era when books were burned, churches disbanded, and intellectuals and artists persecuted, the tapestries were used to cover stacks of hay in a barn. They were treated like common tarps until they were rescued more than a half century later by someone who could see their real value.

The tragedy of the tapestries brought to mind another medieval story: that of Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), the mystic who ministered to the people around her during the time of the Black Death with an assurance that God was present, even in the face of tragedy. She wrote in her Revelations of Divine Love, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." Eric, and I often sing those words as we perform the Sydney Carter song, "Julian of Norwich." Those words have helped many people through difficult times and I've often offered them as a musical blessing for people who can see no way out from their troubles. It is a message we all need to hear from time to time: All will be well. We are not alone. God is with us.

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