A Visit to the Cloisters with Medievalist Sarah Celentano
Updated: May 11
As the Covid rate goes down and vaccinations go up, I have started venturing out to much-missed places in New York City. On Saturday, I visited my all-time favorite museum, the Met Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park. For this All Dressed outing, I knew exactly who I wanted to go with: my friend Sarah Celentano, a medievalist who is an expert on devotional practice and monastic culture.
Sarah has worked at some of my favorite NYC cultural and educational institutions, including the City Reliquary, New York Historical Society, and now at the Brooklyn College Foundation as an associate gift officer. She has a Ph.D. in medieval art history, and as an independent scholar writes on topics such as identity, race and ethnicity, and propaganda. She is thoughtful, fun to be with, and full of keen observation – the perfect friend for any cultural outing.
On our drive up, we talked about our experience during the pandemic. Sarah is something of a workaholic, meaning she gives her all to whatever it is she takes on – and she takes on plenty. During this year, she has worked full-time remotely, researched and written scholarly articles, continued to serve as a professional mentor to graduate and undergraduate students, and is active as Board member and Treasurer of the City Reliquary. At the start of the pandemic, Sarah moved in with her boyfriend and has helped out with the Zoom schooling of his five-year-old son.
We Are All Star Stuff
We reflected on what drew us to the Middle Ages. Sarah talked about the importance of metaphor and imagery in the medieval person’s relation to the world. The use of metaphor and allegory in medieval art and writing can be odd to the contemporary viewer or reader, but imagistic thinking in the Middle Ages was a way to understand humanity’s and one’s own relationship to the rest of the world.
As Sarah described, the people of the Middle Ages “read themselves into nature and read nature back into themselves. They observed nature and natural phenomena and extrapolated what they saw to ideas about existence and the soul. One of my favorite medieval visual motifs is Man as Microcosm, where the human body is presented as a microcosm of the universe. It reminds me of that Carl Sagan quote, ‘we are all star stuff’ and how this is something people have thought about for centuries and to some extent turned out to be true.”
Pain, Pus, and Mystical Delight
As for me, I find medieval culture both deeply strange and strangely familiar, particularly in its conception of the body and the soul, and its intense religiosity.
In college I studied medieval literature: allegorical poems, courtly romances, and the lives of female Christian saints. These devout women performed the most extreme body rituals: abstaining from food and sleep, binding themselves with ropes, walking on glass, even throwing themselves into blazing ovens. Some experienced bizarre somatic manifestations, such as spontaneous stigmata or lactation, and had visions in which Christ appeared to them as a nursing child or as a lover penetrating them with a “ray of light like an arrow.”
My favorite female mystic, Catherine of Siena, was born during the plague in the fourteenth century and was known to drink pus from the scabs of lepers.
Not surprisingly I had a theory that all medievalists were either perverts or madmen. (Not at all the case with Sarah.) The truth is I enjoyed the macabre bodily aspect of the stories, and the ways these religious women derived authority and autonomy in a male-dominated world through their visions and mortifications. The body was the site of pain and delight, deprivation and excess, a locus of sin and a means of salvation.
Though I had grown up in an Orthodox Jewish community hundreds of years later, in these women’s stories I heard a faraway echo. My Bible was Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion by Caroline Walker Bynum which, if you are interested in medieval culture, I highly recommend.
Going to the Cloisters with a medievalist has many perks. Sarah drew my attention to things that I would never have known or noticed. These included the unusual design of a sword hilt in the stone effigy of a knight that indicated European trade with China, and indentations in a wood sculpture of a king that were once the holding place for precious stones. Sarah made me aware of the physical context of these artworks, the way the jeweled decoration and gold-leaf paint would have glimmered in the candle-lit interiors of medieval spaces.
Figure of a King, South Netherlands, Flanders, ca. 1300-1325 - Can you spot the places where jewels would have gone?
Sitting outdoors at the Cuxa Cloister, one of Sarah’s favorite places, we soaked in its quiet beauty. In her words: “I love looking at the column capitals—some of them are so intense, bestial. I like the tension between that and the peacefulness of the cloister walkway and the beauty of the central courtyard.”
Cuxa Cloister, ca. 1130-40, Catalan, squatting figure on a stone capital
The Enthroned Virgin
As it was the day before Mother’s Day, I sought out works that depicted the ultimate mom, the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary. We were particularly taken with the wooden sculptures of the Enthroned Virgin: Mary is seated, and her lap in turn becomes the seat for the Christ child, one body enfolded into the other. In these sculptures which represent a variety of countries and centuries, Mary’s expression runs the gamut from tender to playful to somber. In the heartrending, melodramatic pietas, we see the agony of Mary holding her grown crucified child.
Enthroned Marys and Pietas at the Cloisters - Click on the arrow to advance the slideshow
Little known fact about me: In college when I was studying medieval literature, I used to stuff a pillow under my dress and go out on the town pretending I was pregnant – my take on the immaculate conception. I wanted to be like Mary, most special of all women, both mother and virgin.
The Unicorn Tapestries
Sarah and I took our time looking at the Unicorn Tapestries. These works, the most famous in the Cloisters collection, are astoundingly beautiful, full of rich detail and exquisite craftmanship.
They consist of seven large panels, most measuring approximately 12 x 14 feet, and depicting a group of noblemen and hunters pursuing a unicorn through a dense forest. According to the Museum’s website, this flowering woodland features more than 100 different types of plants, 85 of which have been identified, and a range of both native and exotic animals, including a lion, hyena and panther.
Sarah drew my attention to mysteries within the tapestries. What is the intended sequencing of the panels? Where does the story start and end? Were any of the panels meant to stand alone? And just whose initials are woven into the tapestries’ corners?
Sarah also pointed out the ribald quality of some of the scenes. Check out the hunter in tight red stockings aiming his long, pointed lance at the buttocks of the poor unicorn. Also, note the unicorn’s powerful horn penetrating the flesh of one of the hunting dogs and drawing blood. Is the unicorn a symbol of purity, the object of courtly desire, a stand-in for Christ, all of the above? Go visit the Cloisters and see what you think.
Just where is that lance going? Detail from The Unicorn Defends Himself tapestry
Medieval Dress and Costume
As our visit was for an All Dressed post, I was particularly interested in what the huntsmen were wearing. Here we see the virtuosity of the weavers who indicate a near infinite array of texture and fabric, including the velvet tunics, fur jackets, and leather belts. I loved the noblemen’s foppish feather hats and the rich shimmery hues of their thigh-hugging tights.
As to footwear: Do you like your shoes pointed or rounded? Both shapes were popular during the Middle Ages, but these tapestries from 1495-1505 clearly favored the latter.
The Unicorn Tapestries, detail of stockings and shoes
According the Museum’s wall labels and website, the costuming of the figures is one of the ways the tapestries were dated: “The huntsmen and other figures are garbed in the fashions of about the turn of the sixteenth century, including round-toed shoes and fitted bodices, and their headdresses and hairstyles also reflect contemporary tastes.”
As for Sarah and my own costuming: we did not wear a medieval hood or two-horned hennin, nor a long, tight gown with tippets. Check out the Morgan Library & Museum’s website for this handy glossary of medieval clothing with illustrations.
Sarah did, however, choose a mask with ornate scrolling that recalls medieval embroidery or perhaps the decoration on the margins of a Book of Hours. We both also wore items in keeping with our Mother’s Day theme. For Sarah, a magical-looking ring that once belonged to her late mother is particularly meaningful, as well as a necklace with stone amulet that the mother of her boyfriend designed and made. I opted for a sequined top that my mother-in-law gave me and that evokes the jewel-toned stained glass of a medieval cathedral.
Our outfits and accessories honored mothers and the Middle Ages
After we had a great time over lunch outdoors at the Cloister Grill, enjoying the food, as well as the camaraderie of our first museum visit post-vaccination.