H. P. Lovecraft once wrote to Galpin in 1934…
How are the “yarbs” [medieval-style herb garden] coming along? I enclose something about a similar enterprise. These old cloisters are very familiar to me — indeed, Belnape, Mortonius, & I visited them for the first time not long after our memorable Cleveland sessions of ’22..
Here he alludes to a remarkable architectural assemblage of medieval art in Manhattan. The “Barnard Cloister” had opened to the public in 1914, and was a poetic presentation in a large church-like structure with landscape setting. Attendants were garbed in the habits of medieval monks. This unusual architectural museum then expanded its content in 1926, when taken over by New York’s Met museum. In circa 1927/28 the Met then began to plan a new and larger museum a little further north along the hill, and their new building only finally formally opened in 1938 after Lovecraft’s death. The Met’s new Cloisters presented the collection with a coherent scholarly and curatorial rigour. The place is still open today and a major tourist attraction.
Period map showing subway station for the Cloisters.
The 1938 Cloisters in its landscape context, January 1961, beside the frozen river with ice-floes and with modern housing projects clustering around its forest park. The original Cloisters seems to have been just off the left of the picture, on the same ridge.
Lovecraft’s initial Autumn (Fall) 1922 visit would thus have been to the 1914 Cloisters. Free entry encouraged visits from the Lovecraft Circle despite the very long and tedious subway ride under Manhattan. Lovecraft’s first visit was with a day there with Sonia in 1922, but another was vividly recalled by Frank Belknap Long in his Lovecraft memoir, albeit a memoir written some fifty years later. Long has it that he, Morton and Lovecraft approached the Cloisters in the gloaming dusk, presumably hoping for a night-time candle-light tour perhaps around Halloween-time. It was only in winter that the museum closed at dusk. The group were rather startled to see old crones in black ‘hats’, using giant witch’s besom-brooms to sweep the darkling paths of the wooded grounds…
… we approached over a narrow, winding footpath we were instantly struck by the long and chilling shadows which the trees were casting in the deepening dusk. Then we saw — the witches. Three bent and fragile-looking women, unmistakably well advanced in years, were sweeping up the fallen leaves surrounding the Cloisters with long-handled brooms. There was a twilight glimmer at their backs, and they were wearing what at least from a distance looked like jet-black, conically tapering hats.
12th century doors, a working doorway at The Cloisters.
[Inside…] It was just as impressive as any similar shrine in Europe, with goblin tapestries and illuminated manuscripts vying in interior splendor with wood-carved figures, gilded or unadorned, dating back to the Middle Ages. For the most part the figures were angelic in aspect, but a few were chillingly demoniac with gargoyled features.
Archival material reveals that there were special candlelight evenings at the 1914 Cloisters, and one assumes that it one of these that spurred Lovecraft’s 1922 visit. Regrettably Long’s memoir can’t inform us on that point, as he recalled only the time of day, the forest, the ‘witches’, and the general nature of the exhibits. But evidently there were candle-light nights for the public, and here we see a photograph of one such at the 1914 Cloisters…
Here are some of the more grotesque carvings Lovecraft would have been especially pleased to spot on his visits, as the Cloisters became “very familiar” to him…
While an elevated roof-garden and children-friendly ‘unicorn tapestry’ galleries were added for the 1938 opening of the new building, Lovecraft may have seen early medieval wall murals such as this. Note the figures below the dragon…
There were also illuminated manuscripts at the 1914 Cloisters, because one of the ‘witch’ crones seen by Lovecraft turned out to be the keeper of the illuminated manuscripts. She and her companions wore the habits of the museum attendants. Their ‘black hats’ proved to be old stockings worn over the hair to keep out dust, twigs and insects, while sweeping dry leaves with the giant brooms.
Lovecraft’s 1925 Diary also records a later visit on the evening of June 27th, after he had spent the afternoon exploring Inwood near Long Beach. At this point in time the Met had taken over the 1914 Cloisters, but the new 1926 south wing was not yet open and the Rockefeller collection of religious figurative sculpture was not yet installed. Nor does it appear that the Met’s building work on the 1938 version of the Cloisters was underway by summer 1925.
The Met, having decided to build the new Cloisters, wanted to record the old Cloisters. One of the ways they chose to do this was a short and rather creaky cinema film, which was released in 1928 and is now on YouTube. In this we see something of the original Cloisters as Lovecraft would have known the place…
Given his 1934 comment to Galpin that “These old cloisters are very familiar to me” we can assume other visits followed those of 1922 and 1925. Perhaps those with good access to Lovecraft’s letters can discover these dates, probably in the early 1930s, and also determine if Lovecraft later visited the (perhaps partly-built and partly-opened) ‘new’ Cloisters which formally opened in 1938. Though a few very scholarly sources say 1934, which may perhaps indicate a difference between a 1934 opening to the public and a 1938 ‘final official’ opening ceremony.
The Bernard Cloisters of New York were not the only cloisters Lovecraft experienced, as he also enjoyed those of Yale (forming from them some conception of the hushed quadrangles of the colleges of Oxford, in his beloved but never-visited England), and he also… “liked the cloistral hush of the Brown University campus, especially the inner quadrangle, where in the deserted twilight there seemed to brood the spirit of the dead generations.” (Lord of a Visible World). Yet, given the timings I’ve outlined above, it seems plausible to assume some influence of the 1914 Bernard Cloisters on elements of “The Lurking Fear” (written November 1922) and “The Rats in the Walls” (written August-September 1923).
This place and Lovecraft’s visits should remind us that Lovecraft was writing his most gothic work at the very tail end of the idea of the gloomy middle-ages. William Morris and Burne-Jones and others had of course done much to lift the idea of the medieval out of the mud, mostly in England, but it was not underpinned by the sort of heavy-duty scholarship needed to shift the idea of the medieval away from the old view of it. Even by the mid 1920s the consensus idea of the medieval in America was of a dark and rancid Church that hated industry and learning, and which shuffled the intelligent off into seclusion as shivering half-starved turnip-munching monks, mad sex-starved nuns, to be religious prisoners in dank dungeons, or (if they were lucky) they got to be ecclesiastic scholars who squabbled over religious trivialities such as the correct cut of a monk’s hair. There were no grand universities or thriving merchant towns, just dank castles lording it over lowly over-taxed peasants. There was no uniform set of traditions, sustained and nurtured across five centuries. There were no long distance trade or pilgrimage routes, no trade guilds, little law, no books and letters moving about Europe, and everyone was more or less stuck fast in their native clay speaking mutually incomprehensible dialects and languages. No-one could read and there was no cheap rush-lighting at night to read by anyway. There was no joyous art and music, yet at the same time people were emotionally incontinent, incapable of restraint. Dark Devilish heresy lurked behind every scraggly hedge, and an Inquisitor listened under every creaking bed. Kings and princes, if not completely mad religious zealots, were pompous, pig-ignorant and warlike.
That false view began to change with educative projects such as The Cloisters from 1914, and many other such efforts gathered steam in the USA by the mid 1920s, and thus we saw the first stirrings of a new and enlightened understanding of the medieval that the educated have today — though it can of course still be found in the gothic-horror vampire-and-werewolf end of popular culture. The counter-reaction may have gone too far, coming in the end to focus on and overly venerate the 12th and 13th centuries as a lost golden-age, but from that scholarly and literary over-correction came creative triumphs such as The Lord of the Rings and others which form the best works of high-fantasy.