Category Archives: monastery

Charles Island: Haunting and Serene

The ground may be covered with snow right now, but it wasn’t so long ago that Yang and I had an autumn day at the beach.  Of course, it was kind of a gothic day at the beach because we were visiting one of the famous Five Ruins of Connecticut, The Aquinas Retreat at Charles Island.
We hadn’t planned on starting the grand tour, but our love of ruins has already taken us to two of the locations in the set. I  posted our earlier visit to Hearthstone Castle in Danbury, CT. So, that Sunday afternoon, we trekked down to Milford, CT to finally get the chance to travel the tombolo out across the bay to

the island.  This trip had been on our agenda for years, but getting to the island is no easy feat – not because of  reefs, pirates, or sea monsters, though.  The ocean only subsides from the tombolo  during low tide and this land path  is only dry and clear enough when the moon and sun exert their strongest gravitational pull.  On top of that, colonies of egrets and cranes nest on the island from April until September, so the Wildlife Service has deemed Charles Island off limits during that time.
There’s a legend about the island holding  Captain Kidd’s hidden treasure, but the treasure we found were beautiful ocean scenes and fun walking and exploring the edges of the island that has a circumference of a bout a mile.  The going could be a bit rocky and uneven when you start out counterclockwise, but you get to enjoy the gorgeous ocean bay as much as do the lounging cormorants.

 

Then there are the ruins of the Aquinas Retreat Center.  Not many extensive ruins  to find.  Built in 1929 by the Dominican Fathers as a lay retreat, it was abandoned by 1938.  Perhaps storms or difficult access for supplies undermined its success. At this point, there are barely the scraps of stone and mortar outlines left to some out buildings and small towers.

There was also one lovely archway. I wonder if this structure could be the remains of an entrance to a chapel or shrine.

 

This space must have been a wonderful location for contemplation and communing with God through nature amidst the calls of wild birds, the surge of waves, and the rush of wind.

We also saw some nice smaller birds on the island.  Yang got a great shot of an Eastern Kingbird.

And while I was watching birds, Yang was watching me!

It was such a lovely, warm and sunny fall afternoon.  There were families and young and old couples, also making the circuit of the island, but never so many you’d feel crowded – and the cormorants didn’t seem to mind.

Say, what do you think of this place for setting a mystery novel?  In the 1860s, there was resort here.  Maybe Jessica and James need a vacation, or Liz needs a retreat – Naagh, no shopping!

A Visit to the Cloisters

Many moons ago, back in grad school, my friend Andrea Rossi Reder told me about this wonderful museum of Medieval and Renaissance art, the Cloisters, that was constructed like a medieval cloistered monastery.  It took me a few years to get there, but my husband and I visited one spring some time ago.  It was a beautiful place, near Fort Tryon Park, overlooking the Hudson River.  I not only enjoyed all the exquisite art and the ancient-styled construction, but loved wandering the  herbal garden in the sun and warmth of spring.  Last week, my husband proved is is indeed “goals” by taking me back there after another stretch of many years.  This winter visit had charms of its own.  I had forgotten just how much I enjoyed the museum.
After taking the A-train from the 125th St. station, we hopped the 100 Bus to St. Nicholas Street, then another subway, and we were right outside Fort Tryon Park.  Crossing the park showed us the bleak beauty of winter, the red bar berry bushes, crimson hemlock berries,  and the frosty-blue berries of another type evergreen.  acloisters2We even got to see a fluffy, black squirrel, rare in my neck of the woods.  Then the Cloisters loomed through the trees against azure shading down to soft winter-blue skies .

 

 

These sculpture, likely not Medieval, greeted us as we made our way up the drive.  acloisters3We took turns guessing what the hell they were as we approached. I hit the jackpot with the conjecture of, “Pears?” For once, modern sculpture stuck in the middle of nature didn’t appear so terribly intrusive.

 

I like this shot of  the arched entry way. Note the cobblestone drive way.  We had to dodge a few not so Medieval buses dropping off passengers here. acloisters5I’ll apologize in advance for not having pictures of Yang.  We used his Ipad and I hate trying to take pictures with the darned thing. 

 

 

 

 

After entering and moving through the great hall, we moved off to the side to the square surrounding the cloisters garden, now closed off from us by glass – allowing us to look out at the neatly mown ghost of the  summer garden, while keeping the December cold outside.  acloisters10During the warmer months, this area is all open.  When I visited Mont St. Michel and saw their cloister garden growing within the monastery, high atop the island mountain, I realized the inspiration for the Cloisters garden.  Even with winter’s hand stilling the garden, the December sunshine filled the indoor court surrounding it with brightness and beauty.  acloisters9The carvings on the capitals of the columns were fascinating – humans, beasts (mythological and fanciful), gods – I could swear I saw C’thullu.  

 

 

We went back into the building proper, then wandered from room to interconnected room, drinking in the sacred images culled from monasteries, churches, and castles – excited to find these treasures opened up to our experience, but, perhaps, a bit troubled that they had been stripped from their original homes.  Still, here, they are restored, protected, and cherished. acloisters16Towards the end of our meander, we came across this carved altar with the golden reliquaries of a saint and her attendants – I think St. Ursula.

 

 

Female and male martyrs of the early Church were honored in stained glass, wooden statuary, and paintings. There were tons of artwork  of St. Margaret.   However, in honor of acloisters20my BFF Barbara, I have to include this statue of St. Barbara.

 

 

From the other side of the arch in the same chamber, here is one of my favorite statues of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus.  She is clothed in the sun and stands on the crescentacloisters21 moon.  Just to the left, you can see a carving of St. Christopher bearing the child Jesus.  These statues are more colorful than some of the others.  I don’t remember if their paint had been restored.  Most likely the case.

 

 

acloisters14Here are some more particularly striking carvings of Virgin and Child.  What must the colors have been like when this piece was even relatively new? The thought takes my breath away.  If you can look closely at the folds of Mary’s robes and the strands of her hair, you’ll be filled with amazement at the workmanship.  Truly, this work is a loving prayer.

 

 

 

 

Similarly, look at this exquisite piece.  I am amazed  at the fluid drapery of the folds ofacloisters32 her clothing, the mobile shape of her body, and the moving tenderness of her expression.  The soft shining polish of this wood dissolves any impression of stiffness and immobility.  The statue seems a fluid prayer of gentleness, love, and faith.  What a pity the Protestant Reformation looked at these works and only saw “painted idols” instead of art’s living prayer to God.

 

 

 

There is also a room in the lowest level, at the far end of the gallery, acloisters24designed like a crypt, that displays effigies. The ceiling is shaped into beautifully vaulted Gothic arches – again, I remembered Mont St. Michel.   I noticed one family had a faithful dog under the feet of the various sculpted forms of generations of its nobility. acloisters25 The novel The Undying Monster gives an intriguing play to this custom as a hint to the UM haunting its family through innumerable generations.  I guess when I go, they will have to surround me with  effigies of my plethora of cats!

 

 

We also made it into the unicorn room, with all the famous tapestries.  I was not pleased to see so many unicorns so mistreated.  No wonder they’re so hard to find nowadays – or it could have to do with the dearth of virgins. acloisters33jpg Nevertheless, I couldn’t report on a visit to the Cloisters without a picture of the most famous unicorn tapestry.

 

 

There were also displays of jewelry,  fine utensils, and various types of game boards. acloisters27There were several chess boards with figures carved from ivory or bone (whose?!), often with the knight displaying an accurate depiction of armor on man and horse.  My favorite was this chess set made out of amber.  If you look closely at the board, you can see pictures created in the chess squares.acloisters31

 

 

Of course, we also did some touristy things in town.  arockefeller3After a wonderful dinner at Alice’s Teacup – with equally wonderful tea! – we went to Rockefeller Center and got a look at the famous tree as well as the skating rink.

 

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So, by eight o’clock or so, we were on our train, heading back to Connecticut.  Our dogs might have been barking, but we ended the day culturally and spiritually enlightened.

On Tour for Dracula

So, the last work we’re covering for my Romantic and Victorian Gothic course is Dracula, on December 2nd.  For “educational” purposes, I’m going to post some pictures that Yang and I took on our visits to England in 2013 and 2015.  The first trip was a kind of “English major’s dream.”  We visited Tintern Abbey, the Lake Country, Haworth and Whitby in Yorkshire, and in London St. Pancras Cemetery,  Samuel Johnson’s House, Highgate Cemetery, and other neat places.   So, let’s start with images from Whitby that correspond to events in Dracula.
Here is a shot of the cemetery for the Church of St. Mary’s,Whitby6 overlooking the harbor.  You can even see a few graves that might have been the very ones that Mina and Lucy sat upon – where Lucy was attacked by the evil Count and where he hid out during the day.

 

 

Here are some of the views of the harbor that the young gals would have see from their spot – or Dracula if he peeked through the cracks of his sepulcher hideyhole.  Whitby7Note the man-made breakwater with its lighthouse, described in the novel.
 The brilliant  roofs on the houses perhaps inspired Stoker’s emphasis of red predominating his descriptions of the town.Whitby13

 

Whitby12The other arm of the harbor stretches mightily outward.  You can see the depth of the harbor just by noting the height of the opposite cliff.
You get the same impression looking at the abbey and St. Mary’s from the heights above the beach and the concert pavilion. Whitby8

 

 

 

 

 

Whitby10Mina must have lied.  She could never have run up these stairs in her bare feet.  The girl must have had her New Balance sneakers on – and collapsed when she got to the top!

 

 

 

Here are some shots of the magnificent ruins themselves.Whiby14

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Notice me in the corner for scale.Whitby5

 

 

 

 

 

The other Dracula portion of my tour was at Highgate Cemetery.  There are actually two sides to the cemetery.  One is called the Old Highgate and the other the New.  They’re both pretty old, but Yang and I figure that the encounters highgatecwith Lucy’s Undead self probably occurred in  New Highgate, since she would have been buried in 1897.  We weren’t there in the middle of the night; that’s frowned on.  So, our pictures are all in daylight – they wouldn’t have looked too good with only flash light, anyway.  Still, these pics definitely capture the eeriness – especially if you are a Dr. Who fan.  Don’t blink!Highgate2

 

 

 

 

 

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The graves are closely crowded, so you can imagine how easy Dr.Van Helsing and the boys would have had it finding a place to hide and peek at the vampires.  I don’t know how overgrown the landscape would have been about 120 years ago, though.

 

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You can’t forget to visit some of the famous folk buried here, highgatealike George Eliot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And my husband said hello to one of the more fiery of the Marx Brothers, Karl.highgatemarx  I guess Van Helsing and Co. were in too much of a rush to pay any literary/political social calls.

 

To end on an adorable note, enjoy the English Robin on the tomb stone, though you might have to click on the picture and enlarge it to see him/her.Highgate4

 

Or this fox, who is way to adorable to fall under Dracula’s evil sway.
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Mont Saint Michel

When I was a little girl, perusing my geography book in a grade I can’t quite remember, I came across a photograph of and sidebar on the island castle/monastery Mont Saint Michel. Its inaccessibility, magnificence, and antiquity fascinated me.  I remember reflecting that never in a million years would I get the chance to visit such a cool place. It was a place to dream on, though.  1Stmicehl1Well, a million years rolls around sooner than you would ever expect. Last month, I found myself journeying to the mysterious isle, and not being disappointed.

The tide was out when we arrived––otherwise, we never could have crossed to the towering rock island, which would have been surrounded by tide-ripped ocean. Still, no one ought to feel all that much at ease, even with the tide out, for the sands hide quicksand, 2St.Michel2waiting to suck you down. So, stay on that boardwalk!  Then, when the tide comes back in, it’s with a rush that’s earned the nick-name “galloping horses.”

 

 

 

 

The monastery/cathedral that tops the island seems like an organic outgrowth, built into the 3Village1rock, as is the village, circled by city walls, that spirals up narrow, cobbled streets and ancient stone stairs to the  magnificent edifice melded into the summit.

 

 

 

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Fortunately, the collapsible stool Yang got me, enabled me to climb almost ad infinitum, with moments of rest to forestall the onslaught of my plantar fasciitis pain.7steps4

 

 

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It’s a long drop below.

 

 

 

 

9gargoyles2What would a castle/cathedral be without presiding gargoyles?

 

 

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The church where mass was said had beautiful Gothic architecture

 

 

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Outside at the top were gardens, which reminded me of the Cloisters in New York, near Fort Tryon State Park.  The Cloisters is clearly inspired by this wonderful aspect of some monasteries.  But how do 15cloiser1these flowers grow so beautifully on an island smack dab in the ocean?  How do the salt air and the harsh winter cold affect them?

 

 

 

Inside, within the monastery that contains that cathedral space is the refectory that fed a 21refectorypassel of monks and their royal guests in ages long ago.  They must have seen me coming and hidden all the food.

 

 

 

 

Crypt:  here, the crypt refers to the original meaning, a hidden place as opposed to a burial 19inside1place.  This was one of the vast chambers in the monastery.  The lack of light in these rooms made taking photographs extremely difficult, so I can’t share the dark, dreamy quality of the chambers that twisted around each other. That’s why the image of the Black Madonna here (a much later installation) isn’t the best.   I could definitely understand why in “The Horla” Guy deMaupassant characterized Mont Saint Michel as a setting that left one susceptible to possibilities of the fantastic and eerie.18Blackmadonna

 

 

 

 

 

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Going down showed us the beauty and magnificence of the curving stone walls, seeming to be an organic extension of the mountain rock.  22comingdown1

 

 

 

And gorgeous flowers and other plants revealed Nature’s tenacity, growing from the slightest cracks in man-made and Nature-made walls.

 

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Back in the village, we wound down the narrow streets, toward St. Michael’s Church, with the 27downvillage5warrior angel, himself, on guard in statue form by the door.  We visited inside and felt the joy of painting, stained glass, and statuary celebrating wonder at the Divinity (Take that Protestant Reformation!).  We also visited a tiny cemetery of tall gravestones with plots of flowers or colored broken stones enclosed by stone borders.  Finally, we made it to a little cafe for lunch, where I managed to order in French without embarrassing us!  Mmm, savory galettes of jambon, champignons, and fromage, complemented by cafe au lait.  What a wonderful day.28downvillage