Books · Medieval Art and Architecture

King of the Confessors – a Crazy Story About the Cloisters Cross

I just finished reading Thomas Hoving’s King of the Confessors (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), which is about Hoving’s adventures in acquiring what’s now called The Cloisters Cross. Thanks to him, this English Romanesque carved ivory cross is one of the highlights of the Met Cloisters.

The Cloisters Cross, c. 1150-60 CE, British, walrus ivory. The Cloisters Collection, New York. Photo via metmuseum.org (CC0 1.0).

The book is so good! I couldn’t put it down, and that’s not hyperbole for once. The story is wild! It involves a long-lost medieval treasure, a strange collector with unreasonable demands, colorful art-world characters, and plenty of adventures all over Europe. It also shows how Hoving made a name for himself as a young Cloisters curator in the 1960s. The cross itself is interesting, but it’s definitely upstaged here by the story of how it came to the Met.

This is certainly not the only wild story in the history of museums and art collecting, but is it a little too crazy? While I mean no disrespect to the late Mr. Hoving, an excellent scholar and writer who eventually became Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I found myself wondering at times if he hadn’t embellished a bit for literary and dramatic effect. But honestly, I barely care, because I greatly enjoyed reading it.

On a darker note, the book make me question why people so often feel compelled to do such dramatic, unreasonable, and even greedy things in the name of art. Why does the art world get so self-centered and out-of-control when art is supposed to be a force for good in the world? To be fair, I often ask the same question about many other endeavors.

The Cloisters Cross verso King of the Confessors
The Cloisters Cross (verso), c. 1150-60, British, walrus ivory. The Cloisters Collection, New York. Photo via metmuseum.org (CC 0 1.0).

If you read the book, and I highly recommend that you do, be prepared for some questions to be left less than fully answered. Some aspects of the story and of the cross’s history are still not totally understood, even fifty years after the events of Hoving’s book. The last few chapters provided more insights than I expected, but I still craved more.

I’ve seen the cross twice in person, and I studied it extensively in college, but I’ll never look at it the same way again after reading this book. Its modern history turns out to be just as interesting as its origin and meaning. It’s surprising how often that happens in the art world.

The Cloisters Bonnefont cloister
The Met Cloisters in New York. Photo by A Scholarly Skater.

If you want to learn more about the Cloisters Cross, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has tons of resources on its website. Click here, then scroll down to “MetPublications” for a bunch of books and articles published by the Met – some are available to read online for free. Also read my upcoming article on the cross on DailyArt Magazine. Update 1/19/19: The article has been published! Click here to read it.

Update 2/22/19: Having thoroughly enjoyed this book, I decided to read another one by Hoving. Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art is about his long career at the Met, including his often-controversial ten years as Director. It is only fractionally less dramatic than King of the Confessors. Also, I have learned recently that I’m not the only person who questions whether Hoving was always completely honest and accurate in portraying himself and his role in events. I’m kind of relieved. However, I still highly recommend Hoving’s books – both of the titles I’ve mentioned here and also his Curator’s Game, which teaches rudimentary connoisseurship skills in a really fun way.

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