Courting at the Cloisters
Medieval mystique meets modern love.
By Jaden Jarmel-Schneider
In 1958, my grandmother, a high school English teacher at DeWitt Clinton in the Bronx, slipped a note to her tall, light-haired colleague asking if he’d like to join her and a group of Jewish émigré friends at the Cloisters. He said yes, and a year later they were married. I never met my grandparents, and until last week I’d never been to the Cloisters, but the way my mother tells the story of that date—as if it were her origin tale—inspired me to embark on my own excursion to the Heights.
My own date went okay. From the 1 train exit on Dyckman Street, you can just barely see the stone tower hidden between the branches of the late winter trees in Fort Tryon Park. I started up the steep incline, huffing and puffing with out-of-practice lungs. At the top of the hill, we met at a bench and walked into the medieval fortress together.
In the ’30s, Rockefeller Jr. bought a collection of French monasteries in Inwood, all of which had been shipped from the Old Country, and gave them to the Met. According to the museum’s pamphlet, these monasteries were “places to reflect and recharge” for monks from as early as 800 A.D., but that wasn’t evident to us at first. The main halls, partitioned by low-hanging stone arches and dimly lit with faux torches, are decorated with collections of antiques, manuscripts, and paintings, and are oddly eerie. If it weren’t for the digitally printed arrows stuck to the ground, you might think you’d find a mad king, goblet and awl in hand, waiting in the next room. In the first hall, we saw a crucifixion hanging from the ceiling over an altar, the body fragile and gaunt. In another, fantastical paintings of unicorns line the walls. Stained glass windows filter daylight and the wooden panels adorned with the contorted faces of medieval art appear in almost every room. It is other-worldly, and with the barren late-winter trees that fill the park beneath, the museum feels more looming than anything.
But in between the halls, separating each monastery from the next, we found ourselves in a series of sun-filled courtyards which beckon like little oases. We saw a gardener in overalls watering the plants that line the columns and heard a woman not so discreetly airing her knowledge of medieval history to the nodding man she was leaning up against. I wonder if either of my grandparents was arrogant like this on their date. From what I can gather, it would have been my grandmother—whose presence supposedly filled any room—who flaunted her expertise.
Something is very fitting about the thought of them going on this date. Every single stone of the main structure was shipped over from Europe in the early 20th century, each taken from a crumbling monastery. I wonder if they interpreted the symbolic parallel that day they spent in Inwood—that their parents had just made the same move.
I imagine the Cloisters must have been a hip attraction in the city to my grandparents. My attempt to reenact their date makes it easy to conjure an image of the pair of them hiking up the hill to the entrance or wandering through the medieval halls. While my grandmother’s clique leaned over the terrace looking onto the Hudson, she, ever the go-getter, would have strolled over to my grandfather, who would have been looking at the adjacent columns or maybe waiting for her to walk over. And maybe it was in one of those quiet courtyards, where the light streams through the roof, that they began to fall for each other.