Approaches to Traditional Polychrome Stone and Wooden Sculptures: Conservation at the Cloisters

posted on 29 Sep 2014 15:46 by sumolsen
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By Hadley Jensen
“Displays are…the locus where the previous history of a work and its past critical reception interface with contemporary responses determined by the specific historical moment of its presentation” –Françoise Forster-Hahn

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On September 23rd, 2014 Hanna Hölling’s “Cultures of Conservation” class took a trip to the upper edge of Manhattan to visit the Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Cloisters museum and gardens are devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe and have been assembled from various architectural elements, both domestic and religious, which date primarily from the twelfth through the fifteenth century. Located in Fort Tryon Park, on a stunning four-acre lot overlooking the Hudson River, the Cloisters' collection consists of approximately two thousand works of art, including illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork, enamels, ivories, and tapestries.

The Cloisters museum and gardens, which opened to the public in 1938.

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Opened to the public in 1938, the modern museum building is not an exact copy of any specific medieval structure but is rather “an ensemble informed by a selection of historical precedents, with a deliberate combination of ecclesiastical and secular spaces arranged in chronological order.” Elements from medieval cloisters, including Saint-Michel-de-Cuza, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, Trie-sur-Baïse, Froville, and features once thought to have come from Bonnefort-en-Comminges, have been uniquely incorporated into the fabric of the building. In addition, three of the reconstructed cloisters feature beautiful gardens based on horticultural information from medieval treatises and poetry, garden documents and herbals, and medieval works of art such as tapestries, stained-glass windows, and column capitals.

The first Cloisters erected by George Grey Barnard in 1914 on Fort Washington Avenue
and acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1925. Photograph, 1926.

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Most of the sculpture on display at the Cloisters was originally acquired by George Grey Barnard (1863–1938), a distinguished American sculptor, and an avid collector and dealer of medieval art. The Museum ended up acquiring Barnard's Cloisters and most of its contents in 1925, through the generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. From the beginning, it was evident that a new and more expansive space would be necessary to display the collection in a more scholarly manner. Rockefeller donated and financed the conversion of about 56 acres of land just north of Barnard's museum, which became Fort Tryon Park (approximately 4 acres of which became the site for the new museum). In addition to providing the grounds and building to house the Barnard collection, Rockefeller also donated works of art from his own collection, including the infamous Unicorn Tapestries, and created an endowment for operations and future acquisitions.

This view was taken from the upper arcaded gallery looking east.
Barnard had originally used columns and capitals as pedestals for sculpture.
Photograph, 1925.

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The new museum building was designed by Charles Collens. Joseph Breck, curator of decorative arts and assistant director of the Metropolitan Museum, and James J. Rorimer, who would later become the Museum's director, were primarily responsible for managing the building's design and construction. In an effort to balance Collens's interpretation with careful attention to historical detail and accuracy, Breck and Rorimer designed the galleries in such a way that a visitor could flow through the museum from the Romanesque (ca. 1000–ca. 1150) through the Gothic period (ca. 1150–1520). In 1958, the twelfth-century limestone apse from the church of Fuentidueña in Spain was acquired and also became part of the structure. Since then, major improvements to the infrastructure, climatization, and gallery spaces have been undertaken to ensure the conservation of the collection, including a new skylight in the St-Guilhem Cloister, a new objects conservation lab, and the preservation of limestone windows in both the Early Gothic and Late Gothic Halls.

Joseph Breck, Preliminary rendering of The Cloisters. Watercolor on paper, 1931 or 1932.

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In considering the themes of the course, the challenges in conservation theory and practice seem both complex and diverse. Our guest speaker, Lucretia Kargere, Conservator at the Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation at the Cloisters, discussed several of the conservation issues she has encountered, which include environmental factors, such as humidity and condensation, questions of display/exhibition, preventive conservation strategies, and the interplay between curators, conservators, architects, engineers, and technicians. Since this is not a typical museum or collection, she emphasized the importance of cultivating and implementing a flexible conservation practice. There seems to be a particular kind of conservation culture here, one which takes into account the construction of an overall cultural experience for the visitor, and seeks to preserve an atmospheric connection between visitor, object, and space. Furthermore, the display of objects is a primary concern for conservators since the building consists of modern stone, cast stone, and original stone, which has repercussions for the cleaning and maintenance of these materials.

Joseph Breck, Preliminary scheme for the Bonnefont garden. Pencil on paper, 1932.

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Renovations to the envelope of the museum (glazing on windows, roof renovations, new ducts, the implementation of a modern HVAC system) have resulted in considerable improvements to the overall conservation of the building and its collection, but the monuments and sculptures are still embedded in a 1930s matrix. In spite of these challenges, Lucretia emphasized the importance of maintaining perspective and backing up all conservation decisions with science. She also discussed the “cult of the fragment”—specifically that it didn’t apply in the same way to medieval art/objects, which were mostly religious in nature. As a result, an appearance of “wholeness” was critical to the form and function of such objects over time; it was necessary that they display and embody some sense of visual unity.

View of the construction looking south. Photograph, Irving Underhill Inc., July 29, 1935.


Since medieval polychrome sculpture is often highly realistic, employing rich colors and textures to create the illusion that the sculptures are alive, it was fascinating to think about the very active lives of these objects. They were often re-painted many times over the centuries, some with up to seventeen layers of paint, which certainly presents complex conservation challenges today. For example, how does one determine the specific historical moment from which an object should be presented? Furthermore, the majority of these sculptures depict biblical scenes or Christian saints and other holy figures, so their polychromy played an essential role in their original function as devotional images (their color often helped viewers in dim or candlelit interiors to distinguish between compositional elements and even highlighted the more important figures within a larger group). This brings to light many interesting questions regarding materiality and even authenticity in conservation practice. Perhaps it is important to accept the “authenticity” of later additions, as there are many actors/agents in the life of an object. And can the skilled replication or copy of an object serve as a conservation strategy? How does the preservation of methods and making factor into these kinds of decisions?

Hadley Jensen is a PhD student at the Bard Graduate Center.

Image Repository: The Cloisters museum and gardens, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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