Amazingly, we do not seem to have a Museum of the Middle Ages in this country
I was asked the other day what was the best thing to see in New York. I myself had asked the same question some time ago on the occasion of my first trip there, and a wise Dominican Friar, now deceased, said: “The Cloisters.” So that was the advice I passed on.
The Cloisters is a museum right at the furthest tip of Manhattan, accessible by fast subway train, so do not let the distance put you off. It houses the medieval collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the same ticket is valid for both.
The building lies in a park overlooking the Hudson River, and with a view on one side of the Bronx. It is a charming piece of rus in urbe, and has the added advantage of being very close to the church where Saint Frances Cabrini is buried. Mother Cabrini was the first US citizen to be canonised; born in Italy she came to America to work with immigrants, and was a redoubtable woman, like so many of our saints.
The building is, as its name suggests, a series of cloisters, real European medieval cloisters, which were dismantled in the nineteenth century and brought over to New York, thanks to the fact that many American philanthropists were generous enough to support this, and many Europeans at the time were riven with anti-clerical disdain for the Middle Ages. The complex even contains several reconstructed ancient churches and chapels. Inside the building are many medieval treasures, which make this museum a second perhaps only to the Museé de Cluny in Paris.
The latter is one of the star attractions of Paris, and like its New York sister, a small museum in a city of behemoths. The Museé de Cluny, which is housed in what was the Abbot of Cluny’s Parisian mansion and adjoining Roman Bath (Paris’s largest and most impressive Roman remnant), contains the famous series of tapestries known as the Lady and the Unicorn, the interpretation of which has fascinated so many.
The beauty of those tapestries, and the subtlety of the narrative that lies behind them, should remind us that the Middle Ages were not a period of barbarism, but rather a period of great cultural achievement. The word ‘medieval’ should be used as a term of high praise and approbation, rather than as a synonym for ‘benighted’ as it so often is these days. The idea that the arts and crafts of the Middle Ages, and their architecture, are of no value (an attitude that allowed the Americans to buy up the buildings and the contents of The Cloisters with relative ease) is a deeply mistaken one.
Amazingly, we do not seem to have a Museum of the Middle Ages in this country. We have the most splendid medieval artifacts, starting with, for example, the Alfred Jewel dating from the time of King Alfred, who died in 899, and going all the way through to, for example, the hearse cloth of King Henry VII.
The former is in the Ashmolean in Oxford, the latter in the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. To visit all of Britain’s medieval treasures, scattered as they are around the country, would take a lifetime. There is no single museum that could give the visitor a comprehensive overview. We need a medieval museum, preferably one situated in one of our great medieval centres like York.
The Church, of course, has a stake in this. The Middle Ages were the ages of faith and any museum that shows forth their glory is promoting the idea that faith, art, culture and learning go together, and that the close of the Middle Ages, which came with the Reformation, was emphatically not the birth or rebirth of learning and culture. Moreover, the Church owns quite a few lovely things that would be best preserved in museums. The idea of a museum of the Middle Ages for England would be a perfect joint project for both Church, state and private benefactors.