On this chilly afternoon, we paid a visit to the Cloisters in northern Manhattan.
We wandered the galleries, and immersed ourselves in the intricate detail and vivid, sometimes lurid imagery of medieval art.
The rosary bead below is just over 2 inches in diameter, and features astonishingly detailed scenes of Christ’s life and crucifixion.
Rosary Bead at The Cloisters, early 16th Century. Image by Wally Gobetz. (click for source)
Not much bigger than a walnut shell, the little box puts me in mind of Hamlet’s speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “I could be bounded in a walnut shell, and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.” The thought of being bounded in this particular walnut shell with its tiny depiction of martyrdom and crucifixion is certainly enough to give me bad dreams.
The rosary bead also evokes a nutshell that the white cat gives to the youngest prince in Madame d’Aulboy’s fairytale, The White Cat. To win the kingdom, the King’s three sons spend a year seeking the tiniest, most beautiful dog in the world.
One of the older princes buys up all the dogs.
At the end of the year, each of the two elder sons presents a tiny, beautiful dog to the king, and feels assured of success.
“They were already arranging between themselves to share the kingdom equally, when the youngest stepped forward, drawing from his pocket the acorn the White Cat had given him. He opened it quickly, and there upon a white cushion they saw a dog so small that it could easily have been put through a ring. The Prince laid it upon the ground, and it got up at once and began to dance.”
Images of dogs and other animals, real and imagined, domestic and wild, abound at the Cloisters, including birds, lions, fish, dragons, unicorns and a most marvelous camel.
12th Century Wall Painting at The Cloisters. Image by zanderxo. (Click for source)
After we’d spent a couple of hours surrounded by reliquaries and sepulchers, we craved fresh air, and looked yearningly through the windows into the Cloister gardens. But they were closed due to the cold. So we left the museum, our heads full of images, and strolled out into Fort Tryon Park.
We gazed west across the partly-frozen Hudson River, then walked north. We thought about Henry Hudson sailing up the river in 1609 into unknown territory.
Hudson, we realized, was born in the 1560s, not so many years after the creation of that extraordinary 16th-century rosary bead with its still medieval sensibility. The thought seemed to connect us, our river, and our modern city (developed in the wake of Hudson’s voyage) with the seemingly much more distant world of the Middle Ages.
Then the cold air and the icy river prompted us to think of Hudson’s second voyage to the New World, when he entered what is now Hudson Bay, Canada. After barely surviving a hungry winter trapped in ice, the crew, desperate to return home, mutinied. They set Hudson, his son and his followers adrift in a small boat to die of exposure in or near Hudson Bay.
It’s cold down here. But not that cold.
Thumbelina in a walnut shell.