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Photo: Andreana Bitsis

How The Gardens at The Met Cloisters Came To Be

It is a cool, bright, spring morning when I meet Caleb Leech, the lead horticulturist at the Metropolitan Museum Cloisters. Sequestered in Fort Tryon Park, the Cloisters house much of the Met’s collection of medieval art (paintings, statues, tapestries) in a castle-like fortress, perched atop a hill. As a popular weekend trip for the idle nature-seeking New Yorker, the Cloisters’ three gardens are built into the museum’s architecture and make visiting the museum an utterly immersive experience– far from the noise and rowdiness of New York City.

Cloisters

Nora Rose Mueller

When Leech meets me in the lobby, we soon make our way to one of the low benches in an arcade (the formal term for covered walkways) along the outside of the central garden, which is called the Cuxa Cloister. The Cuxa Cloister takes its design queues primarily from the monastic garden. Properly called a cloister garth (‘garth’ being from Old English, meaning “an enclosed space”), the central garden is located directly south of the Cloisters’ main chapel, whose large, stony shape protects the space from much of the harsh weather– a trick borrowed from Medieval design.

Monks would appreciate the many dimensions of a plant simultaneously– enjoying its beauty, scent, religious connotations, and medicinal properties all at once. “They would delight in the passive beauty of plants,” Caleb explains.

Just as a monastic garden would have been, the Cuxa Cloister is divided into four quadrants, to reflect the medieval world view of The Four Elements in Medieval Alchemy. The two neat paths intersect in a cross at the center to honor the religion at the heart of monastic life. Yet the medieval garden was not exclusively intended as another religious facet of the monastery– gardens were an important site of pleasure. Though these monastic gardens were the early predecessors to ornamental gardens, the medieval era did not distinguish so firmly between ornamental and functional gardens, as is often done today. Monks would appreciate the many dimensions of a plant simultaneously, enjoying its beauty, scent, religious connotations, and medicinal properties all at once. “They would delight in the passive beauty of plants,” Caleb explains. “Their color, fragrance– the way they interacted with all the senses.” Fragrance was an especially prized quality, as it was believed to ward off disease.

The Cloisters

Nora Rose Mueller

In curating the Cuxa Cloister, Leech has sought to faithfully recreate these monastic gardens, both by honoring the qualities the monks would have appreciated, and by planting species, like lavender, based on what would have been native to Western Europe during the Middle Ages (Leech is particularly interested in plant migrations and the effect of globalism). Care for the garden often adheres to medieval specifications as well, with the trees being trimmed according to the art of pollarding– a sophisticated gardening technique that can dramatically prolong the lifespan of a tree, much like bonzai. “There was a great appreciation for ecology in Middle Ages– monks took a lot of pride in their pruning techniques,” Leech explains. “It was an agrarian society and monks were the keepers of knowledge.”

One of those most important aspects that Leech has sought to highlight in the garden is the medieval interest in turf– but not the turf we think of today. Medieval monks delighted in weeds and cultivated edible ones like dandelions; Leech notes the recent resurgence in interest around these “turf” plants today. To celebrate this tradition, Leech lets the garden run a little wild, with plants cropping up in the middle of grassy patches.

The Cloisters

Nora Rose Mueller

As the museum begins to open and the guests start filing into the space, Leech and I relocate to the second garden, known as the “Bonnefont” Cloister, which is the official medieval plant collection. Here the garden is organized thematically in different plots, and overlooks the south end of Fort Tryon park. The plots each focus on plants from a different aspect of medieval life: vegetables (what would have been eaten), arts & crafts (for example, dyes), brewing, housekeeping, medicine, and magic. Garden programming and tours explain the uses of each plant– for example, that mandrake root was used as an anesthetic or that mole plants discouraged rodents in the garden because of their irritating sap. The garden also grows plants important to works of art featured in the Cloisters. For example, only three plants were used to dye the entirely of the famous The Unicorn In Captivity and all three can be found in the “Bonnefont” Cloister: woad, used for blues; madder used for reds; and weld used for yellows.

Cloisters

Nora Rose Mueller

Just to the east of the “Bonnefont” Cloister is the Trie Cloister, a meadow-like space designed to emulate the mille fleurs effect in the same The Unicorn In Captivity tapestry. In the 1930s, botanists from the New York Botanical Garden identified most of the plants in the unicorn painting, making it possible to somewhat faithfully recreate the idyllic scene (minus the unicorn). However, idealization was a frequent component of medieval art and the meadow woven in the tapestry is impossible: many of the plants shown blooming together grow at completely different times of year. As a compromise, Leech sows the garden such that something is always blooming, and the garden unfurls throughout the year.

Cloisters

Nora Rose Mueller

Reflecting on the Cloisters as a whole, Leech opines that “the whole building is a work of art.” As an extension of the museum itself, the gardens are a kind of living history, and Leech sees his role as “interpreting medieval culture,” making the medieval ideals and notions and beauty come alive for visitors hundreds of years later.

As I walk back through the museum at the end of our interview, passing by the gardens and over the well-worn stones, a giddiness comes over me. For a moment I am a little kid again, as I imagine myself to be a royal lady walking through the grounds of her castle. That is the effect of the Cloisters– to utterly transport its visitors in time. Often museums suffer from a kind of antiseptic attitude, with the art displayed against white walls, completely out of context. But with the fresh green of the gardens surrounding it, the Cloisters become something more– not just a monument to the Middle Ages, but an extension of them.

To find out more about The Cloisters, or to schedule a visit, check out The Met’s website.

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