This morning, I took the A Train 10 190th Street and, after a leisurely walk through Fort Tryon park, spent most of the day at The Cloisters. Since 1938, The Cloisters Museum, thanks to the civic-spirited generosity of the Rockefeller Family, has been a neo-medieval oasis at the Northern end of Manhattan - its heaven-focused stone structures subtly suggesting that modernity's concrete canyons of secularist materialism need not be humanity's exclusive option.
Like any museum, The Cloisters is, of course a collection of things - most of them "religious," to be sure, but some (furniture, for example, and the gardens of medieval plants) which a contemporary could legitimately classify as "secular." Since this is a medieval museum, as well as a branch of the Metropolitan Art Museum, it is largely a collection of beautiful, old things (as opposed, say, to a modern art museum's typical collection of ugly things). But, beyond being beautiful, the objets are also largely purposeful. Like most pre-modern art, the objects in The Cloisters were mostly created to serve some social purpose. In most cases, of course, that purpose was directly or indirectly connected with worship (the pre-eminent social activity of that period), Even the more "secular" objects, however, were typically intended to serve some social purpose - even if, to our way of looking at things, their purpose may have been primarily more "ornamental" than "functional." To me, it has always seemed strikingly characteristic of our own modern era that so much of our "art" is created with no purpose beyond itself - no purpose other than to be exhibited - perhaps because it serves more as an expression of the artist in isolation than of the values and priorities of the artist's society.
Anyway, The Cloisters is also, as I said, an oasis. (In fact, I myself first became a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art back in 1987 in part because I lived and worked near The Cloisters and liked going there on occasion for an hour's "break." Only in the most superficial sense, of course, can The Cloisters be said to transport one to a different time and place. What it does do, however, is create a space within which one can absorb some of the harmony and tranquility, which the buildings and the objects enshrined within them recall and signify. These are not, needless to say, exclusively medieval qualities. (In any case, the real Middle Ages were not so terribly tranquil and harmonious as the values expressed in its art!) But they are qualities, whose value that era recognized (and celebrated) more effectively than we today are able to do. No doubt that is why so many churches were, until recently, constructed in a faux-medieval style - recognition of that art and architecture's ability to evoke certain spiritual values. (Sadly, contemporary cultural prejudices having diminished those values even in religion together with the problem of cost have conspired to produce so many modern churches which seem to be inspired more by the art and architecture of the shopping mall and the big box store, but that, of course, is another issue).