Cloisters in Fiction

The prevalence of The Cloisters in literature: A look at the numerous novelists who have set their characters loose amongst The Met Cloisters’s light filled stone hallways…

by: Christian Niedan

The cover of James Carroll’s 2018 novel The Cloister is simple, yet evocative, and ambiguously timeless. There lies a stone hallway with a vaulted ceiling framing a silhouetted couple walking away into brilliant light. The couple could represent either historically real medieval lovers Peter Abélard and Héloïse in 1100s France, or fictional new friends Father Michael Kavanagh and museum docent Rachel Vedette, walking the halls of New York City’s Met Cloisters museum in 1950. Carroll skillfully utilizes the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s quiet outpost in northern Manhattan to tell his tale of two entwined relationships linked across 800 years.

The Met Cloisters is uniquely equipped to accommodate Carroll’s thematic time jump with its medieval atmosphere intact. The museum is a rebuilt combination of four Cloister sections (Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem, Bonnefont, and Trie) sourced from abbeys, monasteries, and convents in southern France. Its towering halls, intimate rooms, and evocative chapels are filled with frescos, sculptures, tapestries, statues, paintings, stained glass, carved tombs, and (of course) books. Its beautiful garden squares serve as meditative botanical focal points, centered on fountains and surrounded by flowers and herbs cultivated to replicate those of the Middle Ages.

Designed by architect Charles Collens, and funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr., the current Met Cloisters opened in May 1938 on the wooded heights of Fort Tryon Park, and the museum has long served as a transportive experience for visitors to escape the sounds and activity of surrounding New York City. Those who step out onto The Cloisters’ West Terrace, are gifted a sweeping view of the tree-filled New Jersey Palisades just across the Hudson River — a stretch of undeveloped land bought by Rockefeller, then donated to the state to preserve the museum’s primeval ambiance.

With such a unique atmosphere, one might assume that many novelists beyond Carroll have set their characters to walk the museum’s light-filled stone hallways as well. Not  so. Consulting with Cloisters librarian Michael Carter, who keeps a running list of popular fiction works that utilize the museum as a setting, the number of novels set in the Met Cloisters stands at around twenty. Some are penned by lauded literary figures like 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, Richard Powers (in his 2002 award-winning novel, The Time of Our Singing), others celebrate the space in verse, as Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges did in his poem “The Cloisters” from 1981’s La Cifra. The museum also appears in the comic book adventures of Spider-Man (1980) and Nightwing (2008). Back in 2013, seventy-five years after it opened, Carter took stock of the museum’s place in both America’s literary fiction and cinema for a Met blog post, “The Cloisters in Popular Culture: ‘Time in This Place Does Not Obey an Order.’” Therein he writes, “The Cloisters offers a setting that is at once inside and out of the city, of the Old World and the New,” adding, “the powerful effect of the place has clearly been noticed by screenwriters, novelists, and even comic book authors, who have set a fair number of fictional works here over the years.”

The earliest novel Carter lists set in the Met Cloisters is Russell Janney’s 1953 work, So Long as Love Remembers, featuring cover art of a couple sitting in the arcade beside Cuxa Cloister’s garden. Next is 1955’s Marjorie Morningstar written by Pulitzer Prize winning author Herman Wouk, with Carter writing, “a visit to The Cloisters and a kiss in the Heather Garden proves to be a resonant memory throughout the book.” Personally, I thought it would be wonderful to ask Wouk his thoughts on such a crucial setting in his novel, but the very long-lived writer died at age 103 in 2015. Fortunately, there are several other living members of the limited literary fiction authors club who have utilized The Met Cloisters as a setting — and I recently interviewed several of them about doing so.

On a recent visit to The Met Cloisters gift shop, I noticed the paperback novel The Cloister by James Carroll (past winner of the National Book Award) on a tabletop display. Viewed from above, the cover appears a literary keystone, the supportive center of surrounding paperbacks: The Last Unicorn, A Little History of Religion, English Fairy Tales, and The Art of Tarot. The gift shop is filled with all manner of such histories, compendiums, and fiction works. But the books on display in the museum itself are strictly of the religious variety — beautiful to look at, but focused on Biblical matters. Of the postcards for sale in the gift shop, the only one I found promoting a Cloisters collection book was an illustration of “The Betrayal of Christ” by Jean Pucelle from the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, Queen of France, done in 1324-28. The museum displays several illuminated manuscripts in its low-lit Treasury, amidst a king’s ransom of precious objects crafted from gold, silver, and ivory. The oldest page I found there is an illustrated leaf of parchment depicting a portion of the Book of Revelation titled, “The Fourth Angel Sounds the Trumpet and an Eagle Cries Woe.” The image is artfully apocalyptic, colored in tones of red, blue, and green, a nearby info sign noting its source Beatus manuscript as “unique to medieval Spain and a testament to the artistry and intellectual milieu of monastic culture there.” Specifically, the page was likely created in the Benedictine monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña near Burgos around 1180, some sixteen years after the death of Héloïse, whom Carroll revisits in The Cloister. Rather than death and doom, though, Carroll told me that visiting The Met Cloisters inspires him with thoughts of monks and artisans who created the art and architecture that surrounds museum visitors. He adds that this made the space a perfect pairing for his novel’s portions set in 1100s France:

“The Cloisters includes the remnant-structures of monasteries dating to the 12th Century, which was, of course, the incubator period for what we think of as Europe — the era of Crusades, of the flowering of language, of the encounter with classical thought, of the tensions with Islam, the coming of political and social structures (royalty) that still stand. The incubator period…and, of course, the monastery was the cultural incubator itself.”

The museum mainly portrays that monastic cultural legacy in visual fashion via art and architecture. But, for his fictional Met Cloisters of 1950, Carroll added an audio element, inventing a museum-wide sound system that pipes in atmospheric music. That literary version, though, was shaped by a very real personal experience, and the author recalled his first impressions of the space when he visited as a young man in the 1960s:

“I felt transported to another world, another age. That sense of time out of time was what most moved me, and it still does. I treasure the arcade around the central garden, its invitation to movement, a kind of slow dance of contemplation.”

The Cuxa Cloister garden/arcade he refers to feeds directly into a variety of art-filled rooms. However, it is the fountain at the garden’s center that is crucial to the plot of James K. Morrow’s 1994 book (and “Best Novel” winner at the World Fantasy Awards), Towing Jehovah, as he recounted to me:

“Anthony Van Horne, the hero of my novel, is at one level a roman à clef version of Captain Hazelwood of the Exxon Valdez disaster. (I should hasten to add that it’s a fairly sympathetic portrait.) As master of the Carpco Valparaiso, Anthony was responsible for a terrible oil spill that despoiled much of the Gulf of Mexico. His guilt is all-consuming. By bathing in the Cuxa Cloister’s fountain, he hopes somehow to scrub the oil from his soul. Instead he meets the Angel Raphael, who offers him a chance at redemption. (To wit, he must tow the corpse of God to its final resting place, a crypt in the Arctic.)”

Morrow planned Van Horne’s angelic encounter with a visit to the fountain itself — a feature he first saw at age thirteen while visiting from Philadelphia, accompanied by his aunt Jesse Morrow, who was for many years Personnel Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

“After washing himself head to toe, but before meeting the angel, Anthony dries off by jogging through the whole museum: the Pontaut Chapter House, the Nine Heroes Tapestries Room, and Robert Campin Hall with its famous Mérode Altarpiece. The Annunciation panel of the triptych always amused me, because the momentous event occurs [in] the homey bourgeois parlor of the artist’s patrons.”

Of all the surrounding spaces that one can walk into (preferably dry) from Cuxa Cloister’s garden and arcade, the most famous artwork hangs in the Unicorn Tapestries Room. Produced around 1500, the highlight of “The Hunt of the Unicorn” woven fantasy series is the iconic “The Unicorn in Captivity,” which appears on many objects in The Cloisters gift shop. It has also been reposted across the internet, where Canadian author, actor, and playwright Chris (C.C.) Humphreys (who had never been to the museum) first encountered it after having the idea to write a book about the mythical beast — which became his 2011 young adult novel, The Hunt of the Unicorn. He described his later experience of visiting the non-digital version:

“Blown away by photographs I was overwhelmed by them in person. I could not believe that such detail, such beauty could be created from lines of dyed wool and silk running down and across. Warp and weft. Then the symbolism within the story depicted, together with the mystery of their origin — irresistible for a writer.”

Humphreys harnessed that medieval mystery in the creation of his novel’s characters:

“My protagonist, Alice-Elayne (the initials A-E appear throughout the tapestries, no one is certain why, so I felt free to make her the descendant and namesake of the daughter of the original weaver) is a modern young woman but with a passion for the medieval. I used the tapestry ’The Unicorn in Captivity’ as my ‘wardrobe in Narnia’: a doorway to another world; here, Goloth, Land of the Fabulous Beast. Elayne is summoned through by Moonspill, a five hundred year old unicorn. But a door opens both ways. I wrote a big scene where Moonspill and Elayne, to escape the evil king Leo, flee back to Manhattan and then have to get from Fort Tyron Park to her Dad’s apartment in the Meatpackers’.”

Far north of Manhattan, on the campus of SUNY New Paltz, Carol Goodman teaches the next generation of novelists Creative Writing. The 2018 winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award (given by the Mystery Writers of America) has authored two books utilizing the Met Cloisters as a setting. Like Humphreys, Goodman is fascinated by the museum’s unicorn tapestries, and had a poster version of “The Unicorn in Captivity” in her Long Island bedroom as a teenager. She visited the tapestry at The Met Cloisters as a child, telling me it “always held a mysterious allure.” Asked why, she is emphatic: “It’s a castle in New York City!” She adds that the museum’s mish-mash of architectural sources creates a strong Gothic ambiance:

“This unique setting invokes all those emotions we have about Gothic novels and the heroines who wander around remote abbeys (as in The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe or Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen) discovering secret passageways and mysterious chambers. Then there is the more modern history of the building, that it was built by a wealthy patron who went so far as to purchase the land on the opposite side of the river to safeguard the view. That story in itself suggests a literary saga. When I met Lee and began spending more time in that part of Manhattan I learned more about the surrounding area.”

That would be Goodman’s husband, the poet and author Lee Slonimsky. The couple combined their creativity (and names, creating the pen alias “Lee Carroll”) for a joint 2010 novel, Black Swan Rising. Slonimsky grew up within sight of The Met Cloisters in nearby Marble Hill. He recalled how the mystical appearance of his local NYC castle had one very modern detail. Since the museum sits on the lower of two hills in Fort Tryon Park (the other being the highest natural point in Manhattan), a light atop Cuxa Cloisters’ tower warns away airplanes.

“The red warning light atop the highest tower is like a beacon to the whole area, and I think I had it in mind when using it as a setting for The Babylonian Triangle, an early novel of mine which was part of the narrative leading up to Black Swan Rising (the triangle is an amulet which was once enclosed in the haunted box that appears at the beginning of BSR).”

Goodman again utilized the Cloisters as a setting for her 2017 young adult novel, The Metropolitans, and incorporated the carved stone basilisk on the 12th Century Narbonne arch doorway into the plot. In Black Swan Rising, it was the arch’s carved Manticore that was brought to life by a mysterious fog. Goodman explained her use of the piece:

“I was attracted to the Narbonne Arch because of the figures of mythological creatures on it and thought it would be scary if one of them came to life. I used two sources to read up on the Narbonne Arch and the creatures depicted on it: [1965’s] A Cloisters Bestiary by Richard H. Randall, Jr. and [1989’s] A Walk Through the Cloisters by Bonnie Young. I particularly loved the description of the Manticore in A Cloisters Bestiary: ‘Its claws are as dangerous as those of a lion and it is excessively fond of human flesh. Only its voice recommends the Manticore. It utters sounds like the notes of a fine flute.’ I’m not sure how many visitors know that!”

Like Goodman, Carol Rifka Brunt grew up just outside of New York City. Though that was a thirty-five minute drive north in Westchester County, she visited the Cloisters often as a youth, and later utilized the museum in her 2012 best-selling debut novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home. However, Brunt said her younger self was always more interested in “the immersiveness of the place itself” than with any individual artwork on display, fueled by a teenage obsession with the idea of living in the past.

“It wasn’t an obsession with history — it wasn’t that intellectual — but more a romantic idea I had that living in older, simpler times with beautiful architecture and a distinct lack of strip malls and other modern monstrosities, would solve all my teenage problems. I felt like if I could only get to this idealized past, I would somehow suddenly fit in with the world. Going to The Cloisters was one of my favorite ways to feel like I was in another time. I gave this obsession to my character June in Tell the Wolves I’m Home and she loves The Cloisters for the very same reasons.”

One transportive piece of Cloisters art appearing in Brunt’s book is the 12th Century statue, “Enthroned Virgin and Child” from Autun, France. Back in 2003, the piece was also featured in Han Nolan’s young adult novel, When We Were Saints. The author, a past winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, recalled several childhood trips to the Cloisters with her mother, and the effect it had on her youthful energy:

“I was a hyperactive child but the Cloisters had a calming effect on me. I loved the stone architecture with its vaults and arches, the covered walkways and gardens, the stained glass windows, and the echoing sound our voices made as we walked from room to room. I also loved the religious themed art and all the different materials used to make it: wood, wool, gold, paint, stone. I loved it all.”

Crafted from birchwood, “Enthroned Virgin and Child” interested Nolan due to “a simple, peaceful look about her, and yet such a strongly compassionate expression in her face. That’s why my character, Claire, was drawn to her. She needed compassion in her life.”

Nine years later, Brunt meditated further on the statue’s appearance from the perspective of Tell the Wolves I’m Home’s fourteen year-old protagonist, and quoted that take for me directly from the book:

“She’s sitting down, and the look on her face isn’t exactly sad, but she’s not smiling either. She’s sturdy and strong, and sitting on her lap is what looks like a small doll of herself. But it’s not. It’s Jesus as a kid, and Mary’s holding him with two hands, like you’d hold a book. The main thing you notice about that statue is that Jesus is missing his head. Instead of a head, he has a thin splintery stick of wood poking out of his neck. He’s holding a book, and Mary is looking out at you like she hasn’t even noticed her baby’s head is gone. Or maybe it’s that she knows all about it, but she’s daring anyone to mention it. Or maybe it’s neither of those things. Maybe that solid look on her face is there because somehow she already knows everything that’s going to happen to her only little boy.”

You can meditate on The Met Cloisters statues, arches, tapestries, books and more for yourself in person seven days a week from 10 AM to 5 PM (-ish), or imagine literary characters strolling its light-filled Medieval hallways by reading one of the scores of fictional takes on a space where, as Borges says in his poem, “time in this place does not obey an order.”

 

To learn more about The Met Cloisters and see about visiting this unique space yourself click here.

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