Medieval Treasures from the Glencairn Museum on Display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Fall 2023

Michael W. Cothren

During the 1920s and 1930s, Philadelphia lawyer, businessman, and political activist Raymond Pitcairn (1885–1966) gathered one of the largest and finest collections of medieval architectural arts in America. He did not set out to be a collector, nor did he initially see these works as a private collection. They were acquired to form a study collection of inspirational models for the artists who were working in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylavia, to realize his father John Pitcairn’s project to build a neo-Gothic cathedral for their New Church (Swedenborgian Christian) community in suburban Philadelphia. But at some point during this gathering of medieval sculpture and stained glass, Raymond Pitcairn’s focus shifted to the establishment of a private collection rather than to provide an educational tool. He built Glencairn in 1928–1939 as a new, large private home, not only for his wife Mildred Glenn Pitcairn and their nine children, but also as ‘a little castle’ for his collection. To avoid disrupting the lives of his family, access to these works was given to scholars only on rare occasions, though opportunities increased after Pitcairn’s death in 1966, when a few of them were included in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1968 (Medieval Art from Private Collections), 1970 (The Year 1200), and most extensively in 1982 (Radiance and Reflection).

Pitcairn’s collection of medieval stained glass is huge. The US Corpus Vitrearum volume on the Glencairn Museum that I am currently writing will contain full entries for almost 200 panels, most (but not all) from France and dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.(( For a checklist of medieval glass in the collection, see Madeline H. Caviness, et al. Stained Glass before 1700 in American Collections: Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern Seaboard States [Corpus Vitrearum: United States of America, Checklist II]. Studies in the History of Art 23. Washington, D. C., 1987, pp. 102-47: available at https://corpusvitrearum.us/checklists-usa/)) These works became even more broadly known after the death of Mildred Glenn Pitcairn in 1979, when both the house and the collections were donated to the Academy of the New Church in Bryn Athyn. In 1982 Glencairn opened as a museum, and many of the most important works of medieval sculpture and stained glass were installed so that visitors, as well as scholars, could observe and examine them closely, in some cases illuminated by natural light as they were intended to be seen. Over the last few years, however, it has become increasingly apparent that the infrastructure of this magnificent building is in critical need of renewal and renovation, requiring the closing of Glencairn through Fall 2023 to facilitate that work.

There has been a long history of cooperation between Pitcairn and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, dating back to the 1930s when he loaned the Museum about 70 works, mainly sculpture since he thought the challenges of exhibiting stained glass were too complicated. Some of these loans eventually became gifts. Because of this history, and because he did not want some of the most stunning and significant works at Glencairn to be unavailable over this period of renovation and renewal, Brian Henderson, Director of the Glencairn Museum, approached Jack Hinton, Henry P. McIlhenny Curator of European Decorative Arts & Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to discuss the possibility of a loan exhibition while Glencairn was closed to the public. The result of these discussions is a room in Philadelphia now filled with eighteen of the greatest works from Glencairn, including among them nine spectacular panels of stained glass. The exhibition will remain at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Fall 2023.

Fig. 1 © Philadelphia Museum of Art, reproduced with permission

One wall in the room—seen straight ahead as visitors enter from the main hallway—presents a row of five figural scenes that were once in four lower-story windows in French Gothic churches, large and small (Fig. 1). They were originally part of large narrative ensembles, designed to remind medieval viewers of key theological ideas (e.g., the Incarnation, the Resurrection of the Dead, the power of the saints to intervene in the lives of the faithful), or to provide moral lessons as visual sermons. These ideas were embodied in the telling of the tales—here the early life of Jesus, the late life of John the Baptist, and the lives of saints, both familiar (Nicholas) and obscure (the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus). The panel highlighted at the center of this installation is undoubtedly the most important work of stained glass at Glencairn—an iconographically interesting representation of the ‘Flight into Egypt’ that is also now the best-preserved surviving panel from Abbot Suger’s revolutionary glazing of the choir of the abbey church of Saint-Denis, created c.1144–45. The striking radiance of the colors—especially the blues and reds—and the detailed articulation of the painting bear witness to the splendor of the window from which this panel came. On one side of this highlighted scene are two scenes from the Seven Sleepers window once in the nave aisle of the cathedral of Rouen, an ensemble highlighting a story related to the English royal tradition through the life of Edward the Confessor, and allowing us to date the window with rare precision between 1200 and 1203. On the other side of the ‘Flight into Egypt’, are two exceptionally well-preserved scenes dating from the 1230s made for more modest churches than cathedrals or powerful abbeys. One panel is a medallion portraying ‘Salome’s dance before Herod’—a dinner-time diversion that led to the martyrdom of the saint—from a modest window in a parish church at Breuil-le-Vert (Oise), and the other, whose shape situated it at the top of its lancet, portrays the grisly murder of three clerics that set up a famous miracle of St. Nicholas in a window from a church in Santeny (Val-de-Marne).

Fig. 2. © Philadelphia Museum of Art, reproduced with permission

Also included in this exhibition is a personification of ‘Synagogue’ from a symbolic passion window (Fig. 2), probably made in the late twelfth century for the glazing of the abbey church of Saint-Remi in Reims. Not only is almost all the glass medieval, but there are surprisingly few cracks, and the light corrosion is remarkably unobtrusive. But the greatest surprise here is the survival of the original medieval leading. The leads will look unusually thin to modern viewers since we are accustomed to seeing medieval stained glass held together with broader, modern lead cames, transforming the leading into a dominant aspect of the visual appearance. Here, since the width of the widest brush stroke is equivalent to the width of the lead cames themselves, the leaded framework “reads” as part of the linear painting system rather than as an independent means of support. Few surviving panels of medieval stained glass give us such a faithful representation of the original appearance of Gothic stained-glass windows.

Juxtaposed on another wall are two products of the late thirteenth-century fashion for using grisaille as a prominent part of stained-glass window design. Both panels date to the 1270s and are from western France—a portrayal of the ‘Visitation’ from Sainte-Radegonde in Poitiers that is set into a grisaille field, and a panel comprised exclusively of foliate ornament and grisaille, once part of a band window at the Noman cathedral of Sées. Since unlike many early twentieth-century American collectors of medieval stained glass, Raymond Pitcairn showed as much interest in ornamental panels as he did in figural panels, it is fitting that ornament is featured in this small exhibition of Glencairn treasures. There is also an exquisitely painted ornamental border panel from Suger’s glazing of Saint-Denis.

If readers of Vidimus who are interested in medieval stained glass find themselves in Philadelphia over the next year, I strongly urge them to plan a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art so they can see these extraordinary treasures from Glencairn. And this small exhibition is not limited to stained glass. It also includes sculpture, including the finely carved head of a king by ‘Gislebertus’ from Autun, and an ivory box carved c.1000 in northern Spain. But for us, the principal treasures in this room are made of painted glass.

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