The Cloisters Connection

Glencairn Museum News | Number 3, 2015

 

A view of the Cuxa Cloister at the Cloisters Museum, New York City. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

Encountering so many medieval and medieval-inspired sculptures at Glencairn, visitors might be surprised to suddenly come across a stone carving of Abraham Lincoln in the house, a striking image in which the former president’s pensive face emerges from a rough block of stone (Figure 1). Indeed, the subject matter lies centuries beyond that of much of Glencairn’s décor. Nonetheless, the sculpture signals a medieval connection in the modern world: both the sculptor, George Grey Barnard, and the owner, Raymond Pitcairn, were avid collectors of medieval art. Their efforts resulted in two of the finest collections of medieval art in America: Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn and the Cloisters Museum in New York. Though these museums’ histories followed very different trajectories, the many connections between them can help us to understand the history of medieval art collecting in America.

 

Figure 1: This marble bust of Abraham Lincoln was sculpted in 1923 by George Grey Barnard. It was purchased by Raymond Pitcairn in 1929, and is now on exhibit in Glencairn Museum.

 

In building Glencairn, Raymond Pitcairn (1885-1966) did not initially intend to create a museum, but rather a home for his family and his collection. In contrast, George Grey Barnard (1863-1938) envisioned displaying his medieval artworks in a museum very early on. Barnard was a native Pennsylvanian and an accomplished sculptor, known for his decoration of the façade of the Harrisburg Capitol Building, among other projects. Despite his many commissions in the States, Barnard spent a great deal of time in France, especially around the turn of the twentieth century. To supplement his artist’s income, he worked as an art dealer, specializing in medieval sculptures and architectural fragments such as columns, capitals, archways and door frames. He gathered most works of art by canvassing the French countryside, conducting business with locals who had remnants of medieval sculpture on their properties. This turned out to be a profitable, if unpredictable approach: Barnard related that he once came across a particularly rare work, a twelfth-century corpus of Christ that had once been part of a Crucifix or Deposition, serving as a scarecrow in a farmer’s field.

 

Figure 2: George Grey Barnard (left); Raymond Pitcairn with a model of Glencairn.

 

Though Barnard sought to sell the artworks he acquired, he eventually determined to display his own collection of medieval sculpture and architectural fragments. In 1914, he opened a museum of medieval art on the northern tip of Manhattan. The museum was known as Barnard’s Cloisters because of the four medieval cloisters he had transported from France and reassembled on the site. These cloisters, together with many other architectural fragments, were integrated into the fabric of the museum’s church-like building, creating a setting that spoke to the religious character of much medieval art. To further suggest the hallowed spaces of medieval worship, the museum’s guides dressed in monks’ habits, and candles and incense burned in the galleries (a fire hazard that surely would make any curator today cringe).

 

Figure 3: View of the Cuxa Cloister at the Cloisters Museum in New York City. From the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa (San Miguel de Cuixà), near Perpignan, France, ca. 1130–40. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

The parallels between Glencairn and the Cloisters begin with the collecting interests of Barnard and Pitcairn. Though not exact contemporaries (Pitcairn was 22 years Barnard’s junior), the two collected medieval sculpture during a period when most American collectors were uninterested. Moreover, both shared an enthusiasm for the abstracted style of the Romanesque period, which was still something of an acquired taste during the early decades of the twentieth century. Barnard was less interested in other media, while Pitcairn was also an avid collector of stained glass (and indeed his collection began with glass), but their pioneering sculpture purchases invigorated American art collecting.

 

Figure 4: View of the Saint-Guilhem Cloister at the Cloisters Museum in New York City. From the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, near Montpelier, France, late 12th–early 13th century. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

Their shared interest in Romanesque sculpture even prompted Barnard and Pitcairn to conduct business together on one occasion. In 1921, Barnard offered Pitcairn a group of fantastically-carved twelfth-century capitals believed to be from the monastery of Saint-Michel de Cuxa in the French Pyrenees, some of which may have come from the church’s cloister. The reconstructed Cuxa cloister is a focal point of the Cloisters Museum today, though it does not represent the complete original structure, which was very large (part of the original cloister is still in place in Cuxa). The capitals Pitcairn acquired are on view today in Glencairn’s medieval gallery and great hall, and one even served as the model for a modern capital supporting the house’s porte-cochère (Figure 5).

 

Figure 5: On the left is a capital from the 12th-century Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa in France, now on exhibit in the Medieval Gallery at Glencairn Museum (09.SP.170). This capital served as the model for a capital in Glencairn's porte-cochère (right), carved in Bryn Athyn in the 1930s.

 

Barnard and Pitcairn’s love of the Middle Ages extended beyond acquiring works of medieval art. As artists and builders, they both sought to understand medieval methods of artistic creation. When Barnard taught sculpture at the Art Students League in New York, he wanted his students to emulate medieval sculptors’ techniques. Similarly, Pitcairn looked to medieval building techniques for inspiration in planning both Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn. He also encouraged the glaziers at work on both of these buildings to develop techniques for creating stained glass based in medieval practice (Figure 6).

 

Figure 6: This early 20th-century reproduction of a stained glass window in Chartres Cathedral depicts King Solomon. It was made in the Bryn Athyn glassworks in the 1930s for the north wall of Glencairn’s Great Hall.

 

In 1925, Barnard sold his Cloisters to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Shortly after the Met acquired the collection, its caretakers planned a new building to house it. Opening its doors for the first time in 1938, this building is still the Cloisters’ home base (Figure 7). True to the spirit of Barnard’s original edifice, today’s Cloisters Museum takes inspiration from medieval architecture—from churches, cloisters, chapels, and chapter houses—without fully recreating a single kind of building.

 

Figure 7: The Cloisters is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum devoted to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

It is notable that the design and construction of Glencairn roughly coincides with that of the Met’s Cloisters in the late 1920s and 1930s. Pitcairn was probably not aware of the Met’s building plans, though he was familiar with Barnard’s first museum. While Pitcairn was developing his ideas for the construction of Bryn Athyn Cathedral during the 1910s, he made frequent trips to New York to research medieval architecture, and he often visited Barnard’s Cloisters. The extent to which Pitcairn drew upon his experiences at the Cloisters for his own designs remains an open question. The museum’s unorthodox approach to object display—including the incorporation of architectural fragments into the modern building fabric, which Pitcairn eventually did in his own home—suggests Pitcairn had stored away some ideas that later emerged in his designs for Glencairn.

 

Figure 8: A corner in Glencairn’s Great Hall.

 

As a result, we may think of Pitcairn going through a similar process of translation with respect to Barnard’s Cloisters as the Met’s designers. In all, the designs for both Glencairn and the Met’s Cloisters embraced a combined approach that emulated and approximated medieval architectural styles using modern building materials, on the one hand, and made use of actual medieval materials whenever possible, on the other. As a result, both Glencairn and the Cloisters’ buildings incorporate tall, Romanesque-inspired towers, chapels, halls and cloister spaces, and there are actual medieval pieces inserted into the walls throughout.

 

Figure 9: Glencairn’s cloister, featuring capitals carved in Bryn Athyn in the 1930s.

 

Even as the Cloisters left Barnard’s control, Pitcairn kept pace in collecting medieval art with the museum’s new curators. While Barnard had obtained most of his works of art in his travels, the Cloisters curators collected through the established channels of the art market, often looking to dealers specializing in medieval art. Pitcairn similarly purchased art through dealers and worked with many of the same intermediaries as the curators of the Met and Cloisters. The dealer Joseph Brummer (1883-1947) was a particularly important figure for the Cloisters, the Met and Glencairn. Pitcairn seems to have had the greatest confidence in Brummer, of all contemporary dealers, and he worked closely with him in growing his collection. Curators at the Met and Cloisters also trusted the quality of the artworks that passed through Brummer’s gallery, purchasing a large group of objects from his collection following his death.

Comparing both museums’ collections, a number of correspondences emerge, particularly among architectural sculptures. When medieval buildings fell into disuse, their materials were often dispersed. Their sculptures often ended up on the art market, and the remains of many great monuments have made their way to both Glencairn and the Cloisters. In fact, fragments of many sculptures originating from the same buildings have ended up in both collections, enabling a dialogue between objects that furthers scholars’ understanding of their histories. For example, both museums have fragments of sculpture that may have come from the town and demolished monastic church of Cluny in Burgundy. That these sculptures made their way to both museums testifies to trends in collecting of the time, which have parallels in contemporary topics of art historical study. At the same time, the preservation of these sculptures in the two museums has helped scholars to reconstruct the vanished monument and its urban context, while the proximity of the objects in these collections facilitates their study.

The connection between Glencairn and the Cloisters took on new life in the 1960s and 70s. Before his death in 1966, Raymond Pitcairn decided his family’s beloved home should become a museum. To further this goal, curators of medieval art from the Met and Cloisters took inventory of the Pitcairn collection. Their research culminated in the Met’s 1982 exhibition Radiance and Reflection, which provided the first public view of Pitcairn’s medieval collection as an ensemble.

The Cloisters and Glencairn collections continue to compliment each other, just as their buildings continue to communicate a shared desire to understand the Middle Ages. They also commemorate the extraordinary careers of a number of collectors, and in so doing they preserve an important chapter in the history of art collecting.

Julia Perratore, PhD
Mellon Curatorial Fellow
Metropolitan Museum of Art

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