The Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean: From Burgundy to New York
by Emily Thompson
The creation of the Cloisters Museum at Fort Tryon Park in 1938 marked the new interest in medieval art in America. The museum’s recreation of a realistic, medieval space was made possible by Europe’s new market for medieval artwork, as well as collector’s piqued interest in the profusion of medieval fragments in circulation. The journey of medieval art to America, and the abundance of medieval works, was a result of both war and a new quest to protect and preserve art that Europe had abandoned. The Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean, located at the Met Cloisters, invites visitors to understand its medieval significance, its war-torn history, and its role in defining the “medieval” in America. The doorway’s fragmented, damaged and reconstructed pieces can serve as a metaphor for Americans’ pastiched conception of the Middle Ages.
The Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean: An Overview
The Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean is one of the few remnants from the Monastery of Moutiers-Saint-Jean, once located in Burgundy, France. It was created circa 1250 in the Gothic style and features breathtaking examples of medieval sculpture, such as the jamb figures of kings Clovis and Clothar. The portal’s sculpted program mixes religious and royal imagery, a circumstance that made the work a target for attacks during the sixteenth-century Wars of Religion and later the French Revolution. It was sacked in 1567, 1584, 1595, 1629, and then nearly destroyed during the French Revolution. The doorway’s tympanum depicts the Coronation of the Virgin, but attacks on the monastery resulted in the beheadings of Mary and Christ, as well as many of the angel figures in the surrounding voussoirs. Modern attacks on the structure, however, made possible the portal’s eventual journey to the United States. After the Moutiers-Saint-Jean monastery was dissolved, the institution’s structures were reused as store houses for local farmers. It was not until the Moutiers-Saint-Jean portal was found by American dealers and collectors trying to piece together the “medieval” narrative that it was salvaged. American collectors’ new interest in the cheap and abundant medieval fragments scattered around Europe are what fueled the opening of museums like the Cloisters. The doorway fit right in as curators tried to recreate an authentic medieval space that would transport visitors. As visitors to the Cloisters both admired and walked through the Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean, they were entering another realm. At the time of its acquisition in 1938, the doorway was described as unsurpassed by any other museum holdings.
The Salvation of the Doorway and its Journey to New York
The opening of the Cloisters in 1938 was made possible by the enormous amount of medieval art fragments that entered the art market in the nineteenth century, and the Moutiers-Saint-Jean portal attests to this history. The Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean was fragmented and many of its elements were sold by 1797. The Art dealer Joseph Brummer acquired the doorway in 1929 from local art dealer Jean Peslier. He sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1932. This transaction typifies larger phenomena. Wealthy Americans saw an opportunity to take advantage of France after the French Revolution. France had neglected many of its medieval holdings, and in addition many medieval structures had already been damaged through neglect or vandalism. The monastery of Moutiers-Saint-Jean was hurt by both war and sackings, one of the last attacks occurring during the French Revolution. Many of the religious heritage sites in France were turned into warehouses and workshops overtime, and thus much of the valuable architecture was broken apart. Once it was no longer associated with its historic site, the pieces lost relevance to their owners and became of interest to collectors. The doorway was abandoned and dilapidated, used as the back wall for a farm storage shed. It is hardly recognizable behind all of the farm tools, and looks completely foreign if compared to its current installment at the Cloisters. When comparing the crumbling remains of the doorway prior to its acquisition to the beautiful monument of Gothic architecture that humbles visitors to the Cloisters today, it is obvious that its acquisition saved it from becoming a pile of rubble.
The Reunion of King Clothar and King Clovis
The Cloisters acquired the Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean in 1938, but it was not until 1940 that its jamb figures were reunited with the doorway. The two jamb sculptures depict kings Clovis and Clothar, Merovingian kings who are believed to have granted charters to Saint John of Réome, the founder of the Monastery of Moutiers-Saint-Jean. An eighteenth-century account states that the two statues were broken in 1567 by Huguenots. They were both sold separately in 1909 only to both end up in the Parisian Manzi collection in 1919. It was from here that they were acquired by the Cloisters, finally reunited with the Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean. James Rorimer, the then curator of the Cloisters, described the process as though it were a detective thriller. Most archaeologists believed the statues of Clovis and Clothar to no longer exist. But in fact they had been in circulation, identified as very rare, medieval statues without any relation to the Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean. It was James Rorimer who identified the statues as belonging to the doorway. Yet even when reunited with their portal, the figures of Clovis and Clothar retain a pastiched character, for it is not certain if each sculpture bears the correct head. The statues of King Clovis and King Clothar were fragments themselves, in which their heads were wrongly transposed many times before the final presentation at the Cloisters today. In the sixteenth century, the heads of both statues were separated from their bodies. The heads were replaced and then reinstalled multiple times over the centuries, most recently by James Rorimer for their display at the Cloisters. Some scholars are still not convinced that the display is correct. Today the kings gaze outward, but in thirteenth century Burgundy it was conventional to position such figures facing one another- a fact that raises questions about Rorimer’s repair of the figures. There is also evidence to suggest that the two king statues might not belong to the doorway at all. However, an iron pintle in the left niche of the doorway corresponding to iron fastenings on the back of the statue of King Clovis is the evidence that proves that the statues belong to the Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean.
The Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean is only one object, yet it symbolizes the complicated journey many medieval pieces endured to finally be rediscovered and appreciated by the American public. The reunion of the Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean’s many pieces illustrates how the modern interest in medieval art worked to save and reconstruct a fragment from the Middle Ages. The narrative becomes one of triumph and beauty instead of wreckage. The interest of American collectors, though at times opportunistic, did come at the right time. Beautiful art that allows people to understand and picture the Middle Ages would have been lost without the intervention of American dealers and collectors. The journey to America represented a second life for objects such as the Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean, in which their collaged pieces evoke their history. The acquisition of the Doorway of Moutiers-Saint-Jean by the Cloisters allows visitors to see how this monument has stood through war and destruction, and thus not letting the beauty and stories of the Middle Ages to fade from the public’s attention.
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