Search for the Unicorn, The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum, New York – review

At the opposite end of Manhattan from the glass cathedrals of commerce, an austere stone tower broods above the Hudson River. It keeps vanishing into the foliage as you approach along the snaking pathways of Fort Tryon Park, and the sense that it might be a mirage doesn’t abate even after you’ve entered. The Cloisters, a medieval outpost of the Metropolitan Museum, shouldn’t be here on this American cliff, facing a preserved primeval landscape across the river. With its dark halls and cool courtyards, the complex seems to belong – did belong – in some lavender valley in southern France.

How appropriate that this most improbable of New York landmarks should be celebrating its 75th anniversary with an ode to the enduringly mysterious myth of the unicorn. The Cloisters opened in 1938, a timeless, quiet, vaguely spiritual enclave in the middle of a cacophonous, modern, profane metropolis. At its heart are the Unicorn Tapestries, a series of intricate and violent scenes culminating in an image of the lone beast, healed of its wounds and tethered in a lovely garden. The Cloisters is like that too: imaginatively resurrected and not quite real, composed of mismatched parts and set in a tranquil bower.

Search for the Unicorn is a quirky and affecting show that meanders among 2,000 years’ worth of lore about the all-purpose mythic creature. An impressive collection of tableware, artefacts and fabrics, plus a couple of narwhal tusks posing as equine horns, testifies to the resilience of a beautiful figment. The notion of a horned horse was such an obvious conflation of familiar elements that it almost had to exist. But the exhibition, for all its charms, is merely a gloss on the Cloisters’ prize hoard, the set of tapestries that once adorned the home of John D Rockefeller, Jr.

Wandering among the various reassembled medieval cloisters or scanning the fantastically intricate wall hangings, it’s hard to assimilate the fact that the entire complex and most of its contents were donated, in one spectacular gesture, by a single man. And yet the Cloisters represents a tiny portion of the family’s philanthropic record: over the course of 100 years, from 1860 to 1960, the two John D’s, father and son, gave away about $1bn – not adjusted. The younger Rockefeller didn’t just write the cheques, either; he was the driving force behind the project, even if its story of dereliction, kitschy exploitation and rescue begins much earlier.

History was rough on French church architecture. Dismembered by revolutionary regimes and religious uprisings, Romanesque and Gothic monasteries all over France were abandoned, their ornaments scattered. Bits of vaults and carved capitals turned up in barns, bathhouses and private gardens, which is where an enterprising American named George Grey Barnard went foraging for them in 1906. Barnard, a sculptor, onetime taxidermist and amateur antiquities dealer, scooped up chunks of half a dozen derelict monasteries including Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa and Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert.

Barnard got his stash of stones out of France in 1913, just ahead of stricter preservation laws. A year later he opened the original Cloisters on Fort Washington Avenue in Manhattan, inviting a public who might never make it to Europe to inhale a whiff of the middle ages. His vision was a candlelit pastiche of styles and centuries. Attendants dressed as monks guided visitors to a “sanctuary” redolent of neo-gothic romanticism.

Rockefeller was one of those visitors. Impressed, he bought the whole museum from Barnard for $700,000 and donated it to the Met in 1925. The trove demanded a more scholarly and rigorous presentation than Barnard’s cramped cabinet of curiosities allowed – and that would require more space. So Rockefeller presented New York City with a 56-acre park as a rocky pillow for his new gem. He also purchased 700 additional acres across the Hudson, to ensure that the view from the Cloisters would remain forever green.

Architect Charles Collens, who had just finished the gothic-revival Riverside Church, was asked to evoke a medieval atmosphere without copying any particular building. He came up with an ingenious solution, mimicking the layers of real medieval construction and incorporating Romanesque and Gothic details as if they had grown organically over time. He wove all the recovered elements into an ensemble that transports those who penetrate its massive walls into another country of the past.

The building was designed to contain the Unicorn Tapestries, which had survived tough times, too. No one knows their exact origins, though the entwined initials A and E reappear in each of the seven sections and offer a tantalising clue about who first owned them. By the early 18th century, they were in the de la Rochefoucault family chateau at Verteuil. An inventory describes five wall hangings in the bedroom as “almost half worn-out”. Two others, “torn in various places”, wound up in a storage room. During the Revolution, these abused treasures did their patriotic duty by keeping potatoes dry in a damp cellar. By the 20th century, they were considered disposable. In 1922, Count Gabriel de la Rochefoucault sold them to Rockefeller for $1m, supposedly to finance a private golf course. It’s hard not to savour the irony of a French aristocrat pawning off old rags to an American businessman who restores them, hangs them in his Manhattan mansion, and then ensconces them in their own patch of glorious France.

Today the tapestries, in their dedicated room at the Cloisters, look magnificent, exhilarating and sad. We first meet the unicorn by a fountain, surrounded by a thirsty menagerie that waits for him to purify the water with his touch. The white apparition dips his horn into the stream, oblivious to a gang of lurking hunters. Carnage ensues: the unicorn is chased, captured and butchered, its magical grace no protection against the human desire to destroy. The tapestries illustrate our conflicting urges to imagine worlds and then crush them. The Cloisters re-enacts that same cycle of creative vandalism. Its shards were carved, shattered and finally reassembled in the middle of a city that is also always erecting, dismantling and remaking itself.

‘Search for the Unicorn’, The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum, New York, until August 18,

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