Nestled into a hilltop of northern Manhattan hides a veritable medieval oasis, older than the United States itself. A labyrinth of ancient French archways, turrets, and Gothic chapels that travelled across the Atlantic to find a new home here, it is known simply as “the Cloisters” to locals. The cavernous site could pass as a ruin from Rome’s Trastevere neighbourhood, but it’s actually an extension of New York’s Metropolitan Museum on 5th avenue. Its heavenly halls boast some of the most remarkable medieval artefacts in the world, from actual papal garments to those famous unicorn tapestries, but somehow it’s remained a bit of an overlooked New York secret…
Then the 2018 Met Ball happened.
The annual fashion event’s theme was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”, and solicited more bejewelled, Pope-worthy gowns on the red carpet than the Vatican itself. As is custom, the Met is holding an exhibit of contemporary fashions with an Old Testament twist — but this time, the mannequins are living amongst the masterpieces of the Cloisters themselves…
It’s one of the museum’s most engaging, and creative efforts to date — normally, the exhibits inspired by the Ball are confined to the uptown museum. And while the first half of Heavenly Bodies looks great in its halls, it still doesn’t deliver the image of a runaway Dior bride (above), or a Balenciaga-clad maiden who looks like she’s got some serious repenting to do.
You can travel from the Byzantine Empire to the Renaissance in the blink of an eye, and sometimes the fashionable new “residents” almost fit in too well. It can be tricky to tell if a frock was born in Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Paris atelier in the 1990s, or an abandoned Norman church.
“Catholics live in an enchanted world,” wrote the late priest Andrew Greeley, whose book The Catholic Imagination greatly inspired the theme, “a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures.” In other words, top fodder for divine fashion.
The collections and gardens of the Cloisters actually inspired many of the garments of the show — and why stare at Bosch’s vice-filled paradises when you can wear them on your back?
The cloisters were another of the Rockefeller’s 1930s fantasies come-to-life, a composite of Medieval structures brought from European monasteries and abbeys and reassembled in Manhattan. It is, in fact, centuries older than the United States itself.
From the ancient roses to star shaped moleplants, the spindly varieties look like they’ve been in Manhattan for thousands of years. Designed to promote communion with God, every sprout in the garden is meticulously selected to make sure nothing other than ye olde varieties take root.
While everyone’s still talking about the celebrity showdown at the Met Ball red carpet, the real fashion show is at the Cloisters, a long-lasting exhibit until October 8th, 2018 that’s well worth the pilgrimage.
Learn more about planning your visit on the Cloister’s website.