As these deities symbolized the return to life of the earth itself, the ancients welcomed them, just as today’s Christians welcome Easter. Similarly, I welcome art regardless of whether or not the artist is alive or dead. If her or his art is good enough, it can again –- zombie-like — live for centuries.
In search of such longevity, my destination this sunny Saturday led me through Fort Tryon Park, in the northern reaches of Manhattan, with its fields full of flowers, its blossoming trees, and its local folk basking in the sun.
I was heading to The Cloisters, a medieval branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where five 834-year-old stained-glass windows (or, to be more exact, mostly segments of windows) constitute an inspiring exhibition called “Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral” (through May 18).
The names of the artists who made these wondrous windows have been lost to history, but their faith and craftsmanship shine as brightly now as they did back in the 12th century, when their handiwork was originally installed in Canterbury Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury and as such, mother church of the Anglican Communion.
The Archbishop of Canterbury had been Thomas Becket, that “meddlesome priest” whom King Henry II had had killed in 1170, as the culmination of an epic battle between church and state. The murder had negative consequence for Henry, too. Becket was canonized in a record time of less than three years, and Henry, forced to do public penance.
In 1174, four years after Becket’s death, a fire damaged the cathedral, and the stained glass currently at The Cloisters is part of the extensive rebuilding that took place between 1178 and 1180, in the rugged idiom of the Romanesque period, when artists still hovered between the archetypal and the real.
These stained-glass panels have temporarily been detached from their settings while the cathedral itself is undergoing extensive restoration.
The five large panels on view depict six figures from the period of the Old Testament who—according to Luke, in the New Testament—were part of Christ’s genealogy, his paternal ancestors clear back to Adam. The original program had 86 figures, starting with Adam and ending with Christ.
They were installed in the church somewhat differently originally. In the 18th century, a number were detached from their ornamental borders, and moved around, but it is still easy to tell who is who.
Each of these figures has his name emblazoned behind his head, and the lettering is large enough so that it can be read even when the figures are at home in Canterbury, installed high above the heads of the congregation.
Each of these lovably quaint figures, with tilted head & rolling eyes, has his own personality and characteristics. All are seated frontally on little thrones, and all are back-lit, so the light shines through them
Facing the museum's entrance, on the front of a towering four-sided display column in the Romanesque Hall, is one very tall panel with two figures on it, one above the other, with a pointed arch at the top, and surrounded by an ornate floral border. This is the only whole window.
Abraham is on the bottom, bareheaded and scowling slightly; above him is Thara, his father. Thara was supposed to have come from the sinful city of Ur in Mesopotamia, and his robe is yellow, a color associated with avarice and lust, but to me he mainly looks a little worried.
Thara has a red hat; Abraham is bare-headed. Abraham has a green robe, to contrast with Thara’s yellow one, but Thara has green shoes and Abraham, white booties. Both figures are seen against a blue field, and there are also red accents, especially in the floral border.
The remaining four panels, each with a single figure, are displayed on the other sides of the column, with one on either side and two next to each other at the back. They all have slightly different poses, slightly different expressions, and slightly different costumes.
The costumes vary mainly in their colors, but the color range is limited, with only a red, a green, a yellow, a baby blue and a darker blue, as well as a purple and a white. Never mind: those anonymous talents knew how to make a virtue of necessity.
Noah, most notably, is twisted half-way around on his throne, and is looking upward—apparently because he was supposed to have talked with God, who told him to make the Ark. He is wearing a purple robe, with lots of his white undergarment showing, and the decorations on it are green.
The other three figures are Phalec, Jared, and Lamech. Lamech was the son of Methuselah, most long-lived of all the ancestors; Lamech was also the father of Noah, and therefore people in the Middle Ages thought of him as a member of the sinful generation which had to be washed away in the Flood.
He is depicted looking – to my modern eyes --- as though he was feeling itchy, and squirming a little -- with an animated expression, one hand on his knee and a particularly ornate throne and costume.
One way or another, all these panels are profoundly pleasing to look at—and so was the rest of The Cloisters when I was there. In case you’ve never seen it, it’s built around a series of cloisters, those arcaded central courts from abandoned medieval monasteries—transported and reassembled in the New World.
The Cuxa Cloister, with an open square of greenery, lush with spring flowers and shining in the sunlight, was on Easter Saturday crowded with people sitting between the pillars of the arcades (despite signs telling them not to).
The Bonnefont Cloister, with two of its four walls open to a spectacular view over the Hudson, was just beginning to produce the medieval herbs and vegetables that in the fullness of summer will pack its central herb garden. The woad, stinking hellebore and common yarrow already looked healthy, though the Dyer’s indigo and the ribgrass plantain had yet to take hold.
Of course, the medieval craftsmen we have to thank for all the art of The Cloisters—if they resembled the rest of their contemporaries-- may not have been Very Nice People, by 21st Century standards.
After all, Jews were persecuted in those days, and “the infidel” (Moslems) killed if they stood in the way of Christians occupying Jerusalem. Attitudes toward women were anything but enlightened (even if those stories about chastity belts are myths).
But hey, who cares about character flaws, 834 years later? Ars longa, vita brevis.