Featured Image: Apse from San Martin at Fuentidue – The Cloisters – Metropolitan Museum of Art – Courtesy of Spanish
Towering high atop the bluffs above the Hudson Heights and Inwood neighborhoods of Manhattan, The Cloisters museum is home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s stunning collection of medieval sculpture, architecture, and decorative art.
Constructed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the towering ramparts of this Romanesque castle were built from the ruins of a number of French abbeys that were painstakingly transported stone-by-stone to this location on the northern edge of New York City. Situated in historic Fort Tryon Park, with its gardens and breathtaking views of the City and the Palisades, The Cloisters offers a peaceful sanctuary from city life and is itself a work of art.
Deep inside its galleries, in a small and otherwise unremarkable display, stands an ivory cross that legendary Met director Thomas Hoving considered it to be the single most fantastic and unique work of art to survive the Dark Ages. Hoving became obsessed with acquiring the cross, with its elaborate motifs and delicate figures carved in deep relief, that he would pay the largest sum of money the Met had ever paid for any single work of art at the time.
Thought to have been carved by a Master Hugo, at the Bury St. Edmunds Abbey in England, the cross is an unusually complex and fragile survivor of the time of Richard the Lionheart; the cross was carved at the time of the Third Crusade. Spiritual strife and violence of the time, not to mention those to come, would ensure that very little would survive, especially such a fragile piece of devotional art. Yet unlike the exquisite Unicorn Tapestries and other ancient treasures prominently exhibited throughout its galleries, why would this elaborate devotional cross – known as the Bury St. Edmunds Cross, or simply, The Cloisters Cross – be relegated to a position so seemingly unbefitting a priceless masterpiece? As Hoving would later discover, not only does the cross carries a dubious provenance, but it also bears a dark message so shameful that for many years the Met opted only to reference its subject matter as suggesting “intense theological dialogue“. The Met has since acknowledged that the cross bears inscriptions which translate to “strong invectives against Jews”; however, in their book for The Met, The Cloisters Cross: Its Art and Meaning, Elizabeth C. Parker and Charles T. Little dispute Hoving’s belief that the cross was a product of antisemitism for the purpose of converting the small Jewish population in 12th Century England.
The Plane has obtained a full scan of the June 1964 edition of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin containing Thomas Hoving’s scholarly article documenting his quarry and introducing the masterpiece to the art world at large. The .pdf contains some fantastic photos of the cross’s details. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin – June 1964
Hoving published his memoir of the events and intrigue surrounding his acquisition of the cross for The Met in his book King of the Confessors. King of the Confessors has since gone out of print, but pre-owned paperbacks can be picked up from Amazon and I recommend it.
The original controversy was also covered by The New York Times in Grace Glueck’s column Hoving Sites Secret Deal for the Met.
~~~ The Plane ~~~