Posing the Eternal Questions

The Flight into Egypt, c. 1145
From the Infancy of Christ Window,
Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, Saint-Denis, France
Stained glass and painted glass

Medieval Treasures from the Glencairn Museum
The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Gallery 307, Main Building
2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Through November 30, 2023

By Pamela A. Lewis

Founded as a religious community in the late 19th century by members of the Swedenborgian New Church, the small borough of Bryn Athyn is located about 15 miles north of Center City Philadelphia. Despite its modest size, Bryn Athyn is home to some of the area’s most remarkable architecture, its buildings reflecting the religious faith and vision of the community’s earliest residents.

Glencairn was built in Bryn Athyn by Raymond Pitcairn (1885-1966) in a style harking back to medieval Romanesque architecture. Pitcairn and his wife, Mildred, were devoted members of the New Church. He had no formal training in architecture, but had previously supervised the construction of Bryn Athyn Cathedral, a Gothic and Romanesque complex.

Both buildings’ designs developed gradually, relying on scale and full-sized plaster models rather than on architectural plans. The craftsmen, working with designers in shops and studios built on-site for them, provided creative input. But above all, Glencairn was Pitcairn’s residence (into which he and Mildred moved in 1939), designed to house and showcase his outstanding collection of medieval objects, purchased as inspirational models for the artists who worked on the cathedral.

In 1980, the building and its contents, including the art collections, were given to the Academy of the New Church Secondary Schools. The collections of the academy’s museum, located on the campus library’s top floor, moved to Glencairn, and merged with the Pitcairn collections to create what is now known as the Glencairn Museum.

Salome Dancing at the Feast of Herod, c. 1235
From the John the Baptist window,
Church of Saint-Martin, Breuil-le-Vert (Oise), France
Stained and painted glass

Glencairn serves as a museum of religious art and history, continuing the intellectual legacy of the museum of Academy of the New Church, while providing visitors with the opportunity to explore the religious beliefs and practices of a variety of cultures and eras.

Glencairn, while renovating its National Historic Landmark building, has allowed the Philadelphia Museum of Art to display 17 of its important stained-glass panels, stone sculptures, and works in ivory that are rarely lent from its collection.

Though unknown to visitors, this fine exhibition is the latest manifestation of a longstanding and rich connection between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Glencairn Museum, dating back nearly a century. The quality, condition, and artistic importance of Pitcairn’s loans and gifts are as exceptional as those from European and American collections, and helped shape the Philadelphia museum’s medieval exhibitions.

They derived from a shared vision: to show medieval art, “not as isolated things” (Pitcairn’s words), but within what Glencairn Museum’s director Brian Henderson calls “an intentional, immersive architectural environment that transports us through time and allows us to engage with medieval works in a space that evokes their original setting.”

For this reason, Pitcairn is recognized as an important figure in the history of collecting medieval art in the United States.

Art to the medieval world was didactic. All that humans needed to know was taught in the stained-glass windows and the carvings in wood and stone that graced the exterior and interior of churches. To the sancta plebs Dei, the holy common people of God, the church building was Biblia pauperum, the Bible of the poor, through which they learned the sacred stories of the Scriptures.

Capital with Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, c. 1150-60
From the Abbey Church of Moutiers-Saint-Jean,
Moutiers-Saint-Jean (Côte-d’Or), France
Limestone

Medieval iconography’s enduring power and appeal also lay in large measure in its ability to communicate directly with viewers, inspiring devotion while also teaching them how to navigate their way through their earthly lives. The selection of Glencairn’s excellent examples of Spanish ivories, architectural sculpture from southern France, and stained-glass panels from the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis gives modern visitors a sense of what it would have been like and would have meant for their medieval predecessors to look upon these works.

With their jewel-like colors and serving as a means for transmitting light into the otherwise somber interiors of churches, stained-glass windows (which were, more precisely, stained and painted) were a luxury, produced by highly skilled artisans. They also functioned as sermons preached with images that acquainted literate and illiterate viewers with theological concepts, as well as with key biblical events and figures.

Some of the finest works from Glencairn’s stained-glass program (all produced during France’s great artistic flowering of the 12th and 13th centuries) are included in this show, representing the superb craftsmanship and artistic imagination of the glassmakers, as well as the discerning eye of their collector.

“The Flight into Egypt,” dating from around 1145 and commissioned by the powerful Abbot Suger, whose renovation of the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis was critical in developing the Gothic architectural style, is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved panels from this renowned church. Among Suger’s innovations was replacing church walls with a skeletal structure that made it possible to incorporate the glowing multicolored windows, which became the dominant form of monumental pictorial expression for centuries.

In gemlike blues and reds, the stained and painted panel depicts Mary, Joseph, and the infant Christ on their journey to Egypt to escape King Herod. The artist has added a twist of legend to this sensitive interpretation of the gospel account by showing Jesus commanding a date palm to bend down so his hungry mother can pick the fruit.

The infamous scene of Salome dancing for King Herod is framed within a red-bordered roundel, from the John the Baptist window of the Church of Saint-Martin, Breuil-le-Vert in Oise, France (ca. 1235). A long dining table divides the panel in half, above which stand the king (holding a knife), his wife, Herodias, and attendants. Within the tight space of the window’s lower half is Salome, her eyes fixed on Herod, while she dances for him in an extremely angular position. She also holds a sword, a possible reference to the Baptist’s imminent beheading.

The Temptation of Christ, c. 1150
From the Cloister of the Collegiate Church of Saint Gaudens,
Saint Gaudens (Haute-Garonne), France
Marble

One would have to have a heart of stone to not be moved by the “Capital with Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man” (1150-60) from the Abbey Church of Moutiers-Saint-John (Côte-d’Or), an outstanding example of medieval stone carving that has retained its narrative power, despite time’s wearing away of the figures and other details that cover all sides of the massive object. Placed on the church exterior, the capital — which tells Jesus’ parable of the rich man Dives, who ignores the suffering of a beggar, Lazarus — exhorted viewers to remember their responsibility to care for the less fortunate.

Medieval stone carvers were particularly adept at fitting sculptures into limited spaces, yet without sacrificing the story the stones were meant to tell. “The Temptation of Christ” (ca. 1150), from the Collegiate Church of Saint-Gaudens (Haute-Garonne, France), illustrates this, in that the two marble blocks forming this sculpture group were part of a square support in the corner of the church’s cloister.

Turning the corner, viewers would have encountered the shocking confrontation, as told in Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:1-13), between Christ and Satan, who leeringly challenges the fasting Jesus to turn the stone he holds in his left hand into bread. While these expertly carved figures depict a pivotal moment in the life of Christ, their juxtaposition presents to the viewer a choice between two very distinct ways of being in the world.

Raymond Pitcairn was a modern man who asked the eternal questions: Is there a higher power? How am I called to live my life? What will happen to me after death? He sought the answers through the art he collected, because for him, the purpose of art was to raise our minds to higher, more spiritual things, and to encourage self-reflection and self-interrogation.

Medieval art (with a preference for French medieval art), he believed, was especially well-suited to this. It embodied and expressed the “beauty of holiness,” and obliged the viewer to engage with it “from the inside,” and to thereby be transformed. It is an invitation we should always accept, to a conversation in which we will always take delight.

Pamela A. Lewis is a member of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, in New York City. She writes on topics of faith.

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