Since its first acquisition, of a Roman sarcophagus in 1870, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has blossomed into a world-class repository for some of the finest creations humans have ever produced. Now occupying a two-million-square-foot neo-classical building along the eastern edge of Central Park, the Met houses more than two million objects, including the largest collection of Egyptian art outside of Cairo, about 15 percent of the known paintings by Johannes Vermeer, one of the greatest collections of European paintings in the world, and the most comprehensive collection of American paintings, decorative arts, and sculptures. With various artworks that span the course of thousands of years, you’ll be awed by the masterpieces on display, and by the talent of those who created them. These are my favorites.
#1 Explore the Medieval Sculpture Hall
The first thing you’ll notice when you step into this airy space is the entire choir screen from the Valladolid Cathedral in Spain. With arched arcades on either side of the room, you’ll feel as if you’ve just entered a medieval church, and I think it’s the most striking space in the entire museum. The Mediterranean and European art, heavy on Christian themes (especially the Virgin and Child), ranges from the 4th to the early 16th century, and I’m always amazed by the refined talent of these artisans from ages ago. Particularly noteworthy are a series of hunting-themed wool and silk tapestries from the 1500s; the Limoges copper and enamel chasse bedazzled with rich greens and blues from the late 1100s; the fantastically intricate one-thousand-year-old Khatchkar (stone cross) from Armenia, with the symbols for the Four Evangelists crowded beneath it; and a wonderfully unique limestone Nativity from 1450 France, with angels and a couple of barn animals tending to the baby Jesus, and Joseph drying his stepson’s clothes before a fire.
#2 Dig the Egyptian Art
The Temple of Dendur — a donation from the Egyptian government when it dismantled the temple to save it from flood waters rising from the construction of the Aswan High Dam — dominates the fascinating objects in the Egyptian art section. Housed in a spacious room and partially surrounded by a reflecting pool, the sandstone temple from around 10 BC attracts a constant stream of visitors. Decorated with reliefs of lotus plants and papyrus and carvings of various gods and hieroglyphs, as well as some unfortunate graffiti from visitors who etched their name or message into the soft stone in the 19th century, the temple stands beside the even older Sphinx of Hatshepsut, from around 1470 BC. These are undoubtedly the highlights, but there’s plenty more to see here — wooden boat models discovered in a tomb in western Thebes, meticulously painted sarcophagi, panels of hieroglyphs, and steatite scarabs, to name just a few.
#3 Walk Through European Period Rooms
Some of the museum’s collection of 50,000 pieces of European sculpture and decorative arts come to life in the elaborate period dining rooms and bedrooms that clearly reflect how the financially blessed spent their money — with taste, elegance, and refinement. Especially impressive are the 18th-century French and British rooms, well-appointed with exquisite furniture, glass, tapestries, plaster ceilings, ceramics, and every objet d’art you could possibly imagine in the home of sybarites from a bygone era. My favorites are the bedroom from the Sagredo Palace in Venice, circa 1718, with its outrageously elaborate ceiling of cherubim (a heavenly scene, or something that can feed your nightmares, depending on your disposition), and the 16th-century French church, lined with illusionistic panels created with pieces of different-colored wood to resemble paintings, commissioned for a French château in the 1540s, and brightened by stained-glass windows from the early 1530s from a church in the Lorraine region, especially the one titled The Deluge, with humanity trapped in the rain and flood as Noah’s ark floats by, sail puffed out and one giraffe’s head poking out of a hatch.
#4 Relish the Exoticism of Ancient Near Eastern and Islamic Art
The twin stone lamassu, or guardian figures, from an 800s BC Assyrian palace protect the entrance to the sections on ancient Near Eastern and Islamic art, the latter of which is especially notable. I loved the serenity of the Damascus Room, with poplar and cypress woodwork and a soothing bubbling fountain at the floor by the entrance; the gorgeous tilework from Turkey; and the 14th-century prayer niche from the wall of an Iranian theological school. The Ottoman carpets will make you reconsider what’s currently lying on your floors, and the various jars, ewers, vases, and jugs may inspire you to rethink your home accents. The contemplative Moroccan interior court — a fantastic space with dadoes of glazed tiles and slim columns (originally from the Alhambra) supporting arches with perfectly uniform merengue-like carvings of abstract forms — exudes an aura of tranquility that you won’t find anywhere else in the museum.
#5 Study the Classics in the Greek and Roman Art Section
Just off the Great Hall at the museum’s main entrance, the barrel-vaulted gallery filled with Greek and Roman art will be the first thing to catch your eye — and with good reason. A parade of large-scale sculptures leads to the towering marble column from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis, a fluted Ionic column that once stood 58 feet high. Iconic Greek black and orange terracotta bowls and jars mingle with wall paintings from a Roman villa. Gorgeous mosaics (especially the one of pygmies engaged in everything from picking fruit from a tree to attacking a hippopotamus) will astound you with their labor-intensive precision; heavily ornamented sarcophagi prove that, perhaps, you can take something with you; and marble busts of bearded, fully maned men capture every whisker and curl. Size is a matter here, too: You’ll love the stunning amount of detail carved into a 2,000-year-old cameo that can fit in the palm of your hand as much as an urn that’s bigger than you.
- Marvel at the lifelike figures in the European Sculpture Court
- Envy the talents of Rembrandt, Rubens, Giotto, Goya, et al, in the European Paintings section
- Discover how Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and Muslims used to try to slay each other in the Arms and Armor collection
- Enjoy a drink, some light refreshments, and a stunning view at the outdoor Roof Garden
- Purchase some quality goods in the tremendous gift shop