Mystery, Myth, Memory and Mom at the Cloisters

Thursday, September 14th, 2017


“Never talk about art, unless you can show it,” said my former professor. In that spirit, all items mentioned in this post can be viewed in the gallery below.

The day after Christmas this past year, our first without our mother, my visiting brother, Jules, — he was living in Philadelphia at the time — decided to take a trip to Manhattan’s highest point, Fort Tryon Park and visit The Metropolitan Museum dedicated to the art, architecture, and gardens of medieval Europe, the Cloisters. I forget how, but we ended up towing my father and cousin along with us. We all met at “mom’s bench,” a New York City park bench in her beloved Inwood neighborhood that we’ve dedicated in her honor, grabbed burgers and a brew at a local pub and made our way down to the Cloisters.

Opened in 1938 and deriving its name from the medieval cloisters that form the core of the building, the Cloisters museum is filled with over 2,000 works of art and gardens that are exact living reproductions of medieval gardens. The gardens were closed in December as the late winter light (it was about three o’clock) casted a hoary glow in the galleries and the Cloisters’ stoic tower, a mysterious place in midsummer, seemed to take on the sense as if this were a doorway to something far larger than our present moment. The artwork seemed to become a portal to someplace else. I suppose all art should do that.

Raised to love and appreciate art, my family has always loved going to museums, a birthday tradition even. Before you accuse us of being snobs, only interested in so-called “high art,” believe me, we hold no pretensions of being art historians.  Our deepest reflection on seeing the Torso of Christ was, “man, this stuff is strange.” Yet it was in that startling strangeness that seemed to open up memory.

Medieval art was deeply rooted in the hegemony that the centrality of the Church created in Europe at the time, but what struck me was how modern — yes, modern — it all seemed. In the artists’ approach to literal-ness, they almost became abstract. Take for instance my favorite piece in the entire museum, Bust of the Virgin. The terracotta bust features such a tender, almost melancholy faced Virgin wearing this huge, disproportionate crown that almost seems to suggest that this young girl from Nazareth is almost burdened.  Back to that torso. Obviously, the artist completed a full wooden sculpture of Christ on the Christ but the ravages of time have left us with only this singular image, and yet, Christ’s humanity, his chest, back, heart and knees ever so slightly curved moved me to think of my Savior’s humanity more than any complete statue in Church ever did.  “Doesn’t it seems more violent this way?” my brother remarked. “The missing pieces and all.” I agreed. “Yeah,” I said.

As we made our way through the Unicorn Tapestries, probably the museum’s most famous works and perhaps the finest set of tapestries in the world, we were struck by the enigmatic nature of the pieces. Here was pagan and Christian, the sacred and the profane; the world of myth and historical record all quite literally sewn together. I couldn’t help but think that so often in our Church we hear people lament “the good old days” of art, where movies had happy endings and the good guys wore white hats. Here was a very old piece mixing a variety of complicated images from the world: violence, beauty, romance and nature. The “good old days” aren’t so easy to categorize.

Finally, it was getting late, staff were politely hustling us away, the gift shop was already closed, but the four of us stared at the domestic scene of Campin’s Annunciation.  The half second before Mary looks up to behold the angel Gabriel, I thought about mom. Of course, none of us being male and Irish or Cuban said anything, but we all knew we were thinking about her, in the same way. I think Mary, sitting on the floor in that painting, in humility, already knew she’d say “yes” before she was even asked.

In our amateur weekend warrior search for Arcadia, the ideal world of beauty, the medieval artists teach us a lot about how we should look at contemporary art today.  Instead of fleeing modernity with its varied cultural, economic and political influences, we should throw it in the soup of our Church’s expression and maybe touch a little of where Mom is, looking down on us, looking up towards her.

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