Sunday, May 18, 2014

Spring Visit: Canterbury Windows in New York

View from The Cloisters
across the Hudson River
Up in Fort Tryon Park, in northern Manhattan, we have a very special place that appeals to so many of us New Yorkers. It's The Cloisters museum and gardens and it has just completed the celebration of its 75th anniversary.

And it's been a splendid celebration, complete with a beautifully written and produced issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin devoted exclusively to the history of the Cloisters. "Creating The Cloisters" by Timothy B. Hubbard provides a wonderfully detailed description of this branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art specially devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. The collection was assembled from architectural elements, both domestic and religious, largely dating from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries.

Not surprisingly, the collection is full of many artifacts that each evoke a particular response from visitors (and it doesn't matter whether you are a believer or not - this is great stuff to look at and think about). I have a couple of favorites, but I'm not a scholar. So I've never taken the time to study the official guidebook or delve deeply to find out more about them (should do that one day). I just like them.

Wise old people
The first is what I like to think of as a group of kings or prophets or something like that, but who knows? Perhaps they are just wise old people (I started to write "wise old men" but I don't think the figure second from the right would be very happy about that!). I'm specially taken with the last figure on the right, as he seems to be pondering some special problem that is going to be very important to everyone who knows him once he solves it (and don't you sometimes sit with your cheek against your right fist while you trying to solve a problem?).

Two ladies
Then there are the two ladies topping off a column and providing substance to its capital. Just what is the lady who in not front-and-center thinking about? Could it be something along the lines of "Just who does she think she is, getting out front and getting all the attention when I'm the one people should be looking at?" I love that stone carvers in olden times could incorporate their own sense of humor in their work.

Now, with the 75th Anniversary celebrations ended and life for visitors to The Cloisters back to normal, we've just had another special treat. [And when I say "back to normal" I'm simply referring to life as "normal" as it can be for visitors - New Yorkers and out-of-towners alike - who thrive on learning all they can about New York's history and how it attached to special interests like those of John D. Rockefeller Jr. - who built The Cloisters - and George Grey Barnard, the person who brought together the original items that became the first collection at The Cloisters.]

Jared (left) and Phalec (right)
The special treat I'm referring to is this: In a special arrangement with Canterbury Cathedral, we've just had a wonderful opportunity to view six Romanesque-period stained glass windows that have never been away from the cathedral grounds since they were created in the 1178-1180 period. At Canterbury, the stonework surrounding the windows is being restored, and while the restoration work is being done, the windows have been on loan to us.

The exhibition was called Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at The Cloisters and there's this from a nice published description at the museum site:

"The windows are from the clerestory of the cathedral's choir, east transepts, and Trinity Chapel. The six figures—Jared, Lamech, Thara, Abraham, Noah, and Phalec—were part of an original cycle of eighty-six ancestors of Christ, the most comprehensive stained-glass cycle known in art history. One complete window (Thara and Abraham), rising nearly twelve feet high, is shown with its associated rich foliate border."

I'm not an expert in cathedral windows, but I did enjoy the exhibition (sorry I couldn't write about it before it was over) and I was delighted to learn about a book on the larger subject of the saints depicted here: The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral, by Jeffrey Weaver and Madeline H. Caviness describes some eighty-six near-life-size figures of the male ancestors of Christ that once could be seen in the choir and eastern extension of the medieval cathedral and priory church of Canterbury.

With the windows here with us in New York, I recently took a day go to The Cloisters, to visit the windows to delight not only in the windows themselves but just to have another visit to The Cloisters, one of the highlights on any list of unique New York experiences. The visit also gave me the opportunity to have a delightful trip down memory lane, for earlier in my career I had been introduced to a delightful lady - now gone, sadly - who was something of an expert on Canterbury's windows. She came to America frequently to lecture to museum friends groups, civic associations, church and literary historical societies, and the like (not surprising that the list should be so long, since Canterbury Cathedral's history is so long and so connected to all Christendom).

On one of her lecture tours, I got to know her and of course, just by some sort of osmosis process I suppose, found myself interested in cathedral stained glass windows, cathedrals themselves, and - considering my profession then - cathedral libraries. I was extremely lucky, for just a few years after meeting Mrs. Brooks I was granted a sabbatical from my then employer to go to England and study English cathedral libraries with the goal (according to my book agent) of producing the definitive book on English cathedral libraries, a large coffee-table type book to be filled with splendid illustrations of artifacts held in the cathedral libraries. As it turned out I was in England for 18 months, living at Mrs. Brooks's house in Canterbury (although I was of necessity required to travel all over England and visit all the cathedral cities as I pursued my research). An ambitious project, and one I was delighted to undertake.

That 18 months was a spectacular time for me, living in Canterbury, traveling all over the country, spending enormous blocks of time at the British Library and even, when required, at the London Library - which I learned to love as a sort of "library home away from home." I even took digs in London for a brief spell, since I was so captivated by being in London and have available to me all that - as for many Americans - London "life" represents. Whether real or fantasy, that environment charms many of us, so to have the opportunity to enjoy London as a real person and not as a tourist was a special treat. I've never forgotten that time in my life, and for me London and Canterbury (and yes, to a certain extent other places I visited in England as well) are a big part of my adult "memory book".

And they were fun times. I made many friends - some of whom I keep up with and who will be reading this post - and I experienced so many good stories that I can't begin to tell them all. I will, though, close this post with a typical story, connecting the visit to the Canterbury windows in New York with Guy's life in Canterbury nearly thirty years ago, a very happy time indeed. And some of my friends will recognize this story, for I used to tell it often.

Kathleen Brooks was a delightful and always cheerful good friend. Whether she was one of the "typical" English eccentrics or not is beside the point, but she definitely had her ways. And often, with a total lack of self-consciousness, she would describe a situation that - for some - might be considered self-deprecating. Didn't matter. Whatever the story was, she described the situation and, with her listeners, laughed heartily.

One day, at the cathedral, she had been called to guide a group of visiting businessmen, all from Northern Europe. Protesting that she did not know any Scandinavian languages, she tried to decline but was told that the men all spoke perfect English, so she agreed to do the tour.

As was her usual habit, she walked the group (a pretty large one - about thirty people) about the cathedral, telling all the stories and of course, with her specialty, focusing on the stories illustrated in the magnificent stain glass windows.

Also as was her habit, she always tried to have her listeners stop from time to time for a few moments, just to take in the enormous space of the cathedral and all that it represented to society and to history. And to have a bit of a rest.

After the men were all seated, Kathleen herself decided to take a rest, so she sat down in the pew just behind the last few of the visitors. They were deep in conversation, and did not notice that she had sat down behind them. As it happened, she was so close that she could not help but hear their conversation, which was all about the tour and all that the visitors were seeing, and especially about her enthusiasm as a guide.

And then one of the men turned to the others and, without missing a beat, said, "And did you ever meet a lady with so much useless information?"

She told the story often, always roaring with laughter, and seeing the Canterbury windows in New York made me realize just how much she would have loved seeing them here.

End of day -time to head
back to mid-town Manhattan
So it was a special day at The Cloisters. Here's an end-of-the-visit photo. You can see it's still a winter's day - not quite the springtime warmth we would like to have had for an April visit to The Cloisters but, yes, down in the shadows is a crocus or two trying hard.

And a very nice day anyway, a day for re-visiting Canterbury Cathedral windows, a day of re-living special Guy-in-England memories, and a day for about thinking about a very special lady, a wonderful influence in my life. She taught me much, and gave substance to my love of English cathedrals.

Oh, and all that research about English cathedral libraries? I ended up following in Kathleen's footsteps and giving lots of lectures and telling lots of stories and having a few articles published. The proposed book that sent me on my journey? Didn't happen. Now generally referred to as "Guy's famous unpublished book on cathedral libraries." It was a grand idea, had lots of support from people I knew in America, including a very hard-working agent, and support from folks in the Anglican church (some, not all). My agent really tried had to sell the project to the art publishers but it wasn't to be. When my research work in England was finished with no publication in sight, it was time to move on.

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