The Pitcairn Flight into Egypt

Glencairn Museum News | Number 1, 2016

The Pitcairn Flight into Egypt, from the Infancy of Christ window of the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, France, c. 1140-1145 (Glencairn Museum, 03.SG.114). This is an unusually well-preserved panel of medieval stained glass. The only significant modern restorations are the white strip of ornament that surrounds the panel as a frame, and the white tether that runs between Joseph’s hand and the donkey’s head.

This square panel of medieval stained glass—portraying the Holy Family journeying to Egypt to escape the massacre ordered by King Herod (Matthew 2:13-15)—may be the most famous work of art in Glencairn Museum. It is highlighted on the museum web site; it has appeared on a UNICEF Christmas card; it is afforded a lavish full-page illustration in a recent French book on the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis; it is featured in a popular art history survey text book used in colleges across the U.S.A. There is a good reason for its fame. The Pitcairn Flight into Egypt is the best preserved surviving panel from one of the principal stained-glass windows of the first Gothic structure: Abbot Suger’s reconstruction of the choir of the Abbey Church at Saint-Denis between 1140 and 1144. The panel also has a rich history, modern as well as medieval, local as well as foreign.

Acquired by Raymond Pitcairn

Raymond Pitcairn’s purchase of the Flight into Egypt from the Belgian art dealer Lucien Demotte (1906-1934) in 1930 is well documented through an exchange of letters preserved in the collection files at the museum. On December 5, 1929, the panel arrived on approval at Glencairn from Demotte’s New York gallery, described as 12th-century French stained glass, with Saint-Denis only vaguely suggested as a possible provenance. Pitcairn wrote that he thought the style of the panel was closer to Sens or Poitiers, but Demotte replied in a letter dated December 26th that “The Flight into Egypt is closer to St. Denis than to Chartres or Le Mans or to any other place I know—you find the same blue in some panels at St. Denis—only in two or three.” In the correspondence that follows, Demotte continues to argue that the Flight was from Saint-Denis because of the painting style, and because of the nature of the blue glass. In January of 1930, Pitcairn agreed to purchase the panel for $65,000, a considerable savings over the original price of $200,000 cited when the panel arrived on approval, but still a significant amount of money in 1930. The following year Demotte wrote an article on “The Pitcairn Collection” for the art magazine Formes (published both in French and in English) in which an illustration of the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt was published for the first time.

Early Art Historical Evaluation

Since Formes was not read regularly by research art historians, and since Raymond Pitcairn’s growing collection of medieval stained glass was private and essentially unavailable to scholars, it would be decades before this Flight into Egypt entered into art historical discussions on the medieval stained glass of Saint-Denis. Louis Grodecki (1910-1982), considered one of the founding fathers of modern stained-glass studies, was one of the specialists asked to evaluate Raymond Pitcairn’s stained-glass collection at the time of the collector’s death in 1966. Grodecki was provided with small black and white photographs of each panel in the collection, and it was probably during the study of these pictures (he never examined the panels themselves) that he saw the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt for the first time. Grodecki was the foremost authority on the 12th-century stained glass of Saint-Denis, and in 1960 he had published an article on Suger’s Infancy of Christ window that assessed its design and iconography.

The window now installed at Saint-Denis contains only a few fragments of the original ensemble. Although most of the 12th-century stained glass of Saint-Denis survived the ravages of the French Revolution, soon afterward in 1799 the government authorized Alexandre Lenoir to remove as much glass as he wanted for his Museum of French National Monuments in Paris. A contemporary newspaper reported in 1802 that some of the glass he appropriated was destroyed in transit, but other panels not used in his museum were sold by Lenoir and his associates and are now distributed among numerous private and public collections in Europe and the United States.


Figure 1: The Arrival of the Holy Family at Sotine, from the Infancy of Christ window of the Abbey Church of Saint Denis, France, c. 1140-1145 (now installed in Wilton parish church, England). This drawing of the panel, made by Charles Winston in 1841, was made before it was installed at Wilton and began to corrode; in its current state, the scene is much more difficult to see.


Grodecki’s 1960 article catalogued the dispersed panels surviving from the Infancy of Christ window as well as those still installed in the church, and he proposed a reconstruction of the window’s original appearance. Included in this reconstruction was an authentic panel from Saint-Denis portraying Joseph leading a donkey carrying the Virgin and Child that is now installed in a window at the parish church at Wilton, England (Figure 1). Presumably it was one of the panels that Lenoir had sold since his associate is known to have worked with a dealer in Norwich. Grodecki logically identified this Wilton panel as the Flight into Egypt from the original window, and when he saw the picture of a panel closely related to it among the photographs he was given to assess the Pitcairn collection, he assumed the Pitcairn panel to be a modern adaptation of the original Wilton panel, created to be sold on the art market. He branded it a forgery, spread the word, and published his assessment in 1976, buried within a footnote of his scholarly catalogue of stained glass from Saint-Denis, a volume in the prestigious international Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi series. The Pitcairn Flight into Egypt became a famous fake in stained-glass circles.

A Challenge to the Status Quo

Here, the story becomes personal. In 1975-1978, I was a graduate student at Columbia University, supported by a fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art while I worked with my dissertation advisor, Jane Hayward (1918-1994), a curator at The Cloisters and the foremost American authority on medieval stained glass. While I was there, the Rev. Martin Pryke (at that time Director of the Academy of the New Church Museum) made a trip from Bryn Athyn to The Cloisters to invite Hayward to inventory Raymond Pitcairn’s collection of medieval art. For years she had wanted to see Pitcairn’s stained glass, and she was thrilled by the invitation, to say the least. Within weeks Hayward and I were traveling together once a week from New York to Bryn Athyn to examine each work of art at Glencairn—this time the art historical assessment would not be restricted to looking at small, black and white photographs—where we were welcomed warmly by the Glencairn staff, especially Joyce Bellinger (Glencairn housekeeper) who went out of her way to facilitate our work and make us feel welcomed. This experience was the highlight of my graduate education; it was at Glencairn where I truly became a stained-glass specialist. We were given a space to work in the basement, close to the storage room where the panels of stained glass were kept. While Hayward sat at a desk taking notes, I took each extraordinary example of medieval stained glass out of the storage shelves for us to examine.

I will never forget the moment in 1977 when we came to the Flight into Egypt. Hayward called out the number and warned me that since the panel was a “famous fake,” this would be a fun one. The moment I pulled the panel out of the storage shelf, I knew it was not a forgery. It had all the most obvious hallmarks of medieval stained glass, recognizable in a blink. I called Hayward over to outline the argument for authenticity. She stood silent for what seemed like a long time, looking at the panel with her signature searing intensity while I presented my reasoning. She was skeptical at first, joking about how good the forger was since he had clearly fooled me. But I saw her gradually come around, especially as we compared the panel to other Saint-Denis stained glass from Glencairn, panels that were universally accepted as authentic. We spent the rest of the day studying the Flight into Egypt (more time than we had ever spent on a single work at Glencairn), and when we returned to New York that evening, I spent most of the night pouring over the art-historical literature to try to understand what I had seen. Over the next few weeks I gathered a dossier of photographs and evidence that I took with me to Paris and presented to Grodecki, naively believing that he would accept the authenticity of the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt and publish it himself. Saint-Denis was his topic, and I thought he should be the one to reveal this new finding to the scholarly community. Unfortunately, Grodecki held fast to his conviction that the panel was a forgery; he refused to reconsider it, even to look at the materials I had brought. So I had no choice but to present my conclusions on my own; the panel was too important to set aside.

The initial, and ultimately most powerful evidence was physical, and the nature of the glass itself was the most persuasive indicator. The corrosion that appears on the exterior surface of most medieval glass tends to vary in appearance from church to church (or window to window), and the corrosion that coats all but the blue glass from Saint-Denis is especially distinctive. In panels such as the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt, which have been kept in safe, dry conditions since taken out of the building around 1800, it consists of a smooth film spotted with bubbles, creating a patina in a pastel hue of the color of potash glass it coats. And the lack of corrosion on the blue glass from Saint-Denis, including that in this panel, is as distinctive as the patination found on the other colors. The high soda content of this blue glass renders it impervious to weathering, and since the material maintains its transparency, we are allowed to see the tiny bubbles that permeate its thickness and frequently create a series of small bumps on the surface. What is significant here is that all these most salient physical features of 12th-century Saint-Denis glass are also characteristic of the glass composing the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt.

Scientific evidence fully supported these initial visual observations. Because of the continuing controversy concerning the authenticity of the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt, samples of glass were taken from underneath the leads where their absence would not be noticeable, not only from this panel but also from two fragments from the ornamental border of the Infancy of Christ window of Saint-Denis that are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. These samples were then subjected to a quantitative chemical analysis supervised by glass scientist Robert Brill at the Corning Museum of Glass. The authenticity and provenance of the Metropolitan panels had been first asserted by Grodecki and had never been challenged. Brill concluded that since the chemical composition of the potash glass in all three panels was virtually indistinguishable, and since it was distinct from all the other medieval glass he had analyzed, the glass composing the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt was made at the same time and in the same place as the glass in the accepted border fragments. This evidence is fundamentally significant. Since we believe the glass for 12th-century windows was made on the construction site, its chemical composition varies from place to place and is a strong indicator of provenance.

The physical evidence of the materials is confirmed by stylistic and iconographic evidence. The painted articulation of the figures in the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt—that is the brush strokes that outline the features of faces, the styling of hair, and the folding of drapery (Figure 2)—is consistent with that found in other surviving panels from Saint-Denis, more specifically with the work of one of the two identifiable 12th-century painters who collaborated on the Infancy of Christ window, the one responsible for the upper registers where the scene of the Flight into Egypt fits chronologically within the story. This painter (I have called him the Simeon Master) also worked on the Crusading window at Saint-Denis, and since Glencairn Museum owns the only two surviving medallions from that window, visitors to the museum can witness themselves the hallmarks of his style in both windows (Figure 3).


Figure 2: Detail of the Virgin and Child from the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt.


Figure 3: Crusaders receiving the crowns of Martyrdom from the Crusading window of the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, France, c. 1146-1148 or c. 1158 (Glencairn Museum, 03.SG.111). The group of heads to the left were painted by the same artist who painted the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt.


The evidence of materials and style is further bolstered by subject matter, notably by the particular way the story of the Flight into Egypt is portrayed in the Pitcairn panel. The most distinctive motif is the Virgin Mary’s highlighted gesture of picking a date from a palm tree (Figure 2), which has bent over to allow her to pick fruit from its branches. This part of the story is not included in the four canonical Gospels of the Christian Bible, but it is described in the Early Christian apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which is also the source of a series of other peculiarities in the Infancy of Christ Window at Saint-Denis.

One of these peculiarities is the incorporation of two scenes showing the Holy Family journeying—the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt and the scene in Wilton that Grodecki had first identified as the Flight into Egypt (Figure 1). The window at Saint-Denis would not be the only 12th-century French Infancy of Christ window to contain two scenes of the Holy Family journeying. It shares this feature with the Infancy of Christ window in the west wall of the Cathedral of Chartres (Figure 4), where the initial panel (at left) shows the Holy Family journeying from left to right toward Egypt, and the second panel (at right), with the direction of travel reversed, shows their arrival, greeted by a crowd of people emerging from the gates of a city, portrayed in a third panel in the center between them. Like the miraculous bending of the palm tree in the scene of the Flight, the story of their arrival at the Egyptian city of Sotine is a part of the account of Jesus’ childhood in the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. And since there are two additional panels from Saint-Denis installed at Wilton that can be joined together to form a medallion portraying a welcoming crowd emerging from city gates, the same narrative sequence at Chartres must have appeared previously in the window at Saint-Denis. Using consistently scaled photographs of these panels, it is possible to create a montage that reconstructs their placement together at the top of the lancet in the 12th-century window at Saint-Denis (Figure 5). Conveniently, the particular location in the window’s design where the Flight into Egypt belongs, calls for a square panel, the format of the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt.

Figure 4: The Flight into Egypt (left) and the Arrival of the Holy Family at Sotine (center and right), from the Infancy of Christ window of the Cathedral of Chartres, France, c. 1150-1155.


Figure 5: Reconstruction of the upper two registers of the Infancy of Christ window from Saint-Denis, incorporating the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt and three panels now installed in Wilton parish church, England.


As a result of this impressive constellation of evidence, although for years the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt was considered a modern forgery, today it is recognized—in France as well as in the United States—not only as an authentic panel of 12th-century glass from the Saint-Denis Infancy of Christ window, but also as one of the best preserved surviving panels from this first Gothic glazing directed by Abbot Suger. Its place as one of the most important and famous works of art at Glencairn Museum is secure.

Michael W. Cothren, PhD
Consultative Curator of Medieval Stained Glass at Glencairn Museum
Scheuer Family Professor of Humanities at Swarthmore College


Cothren, Michael W. “A Re-evaluation of the Iconography and Design of the Infancy Window of the Abbey of Saint-Denis.” Gesta 17 (1978): 22-23. (An abstract of the first presentation of the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt as an authentic panel of stained glass from Saint-Denis at the International Congress of Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 1978.)

________. “The Infancy of Christ Window from the Abbey of Saint-Denis: A Reconsideration of Its Design and Iconography.” Art Bulletin68 (1986): 398-420. (An extended and more fully documented and illustrated version of the argument presented here.)

________. “Suger’s Stained Glass Masters and Their Workshop at Saint-Denis.” In Paris: Center of Artistic Enlightenment. Papers in Art History from The Pennsylvania State University, Volume IV (1988): 46-75. (A full discussion of the work of the two artists who painted the Infancy of Christ and Crusading windows from Saint-Denis.)

________. “Joseph’s Dream in the Thomson Collection: Reconsidering the Reconstruction of the Infancy of Christ Window from Suger’s Saint-Denis.” In Arts of the Medieval Cathedrals: Studies on Architecture, Stained Glass and Sculpture in Honor of Anne Prache, ed. Kathleen Nolan. Ashgate, 2015, 107-119. (The latest discovery concerning the Infancy of Christ window at Saint-Denis, which allows a confirmation and expansion of the reconstruction of the upper registers where the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt was installed.)

Crosby, Sumner McKnight, et al. The Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis in the Time of Abbot Suger, exh. Cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1981. (Jane Hayward’s entry on the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt—similar to the views she expressed in the Radiance and Reflection catalogue—is accompanied on p. 81 by Robert Brill and Lynus Barnes’s summary of their scientific assessment of its glass.)

Demotte, Lucien. “The Pitcairn Collection.” Formes 28-29 (1932): 307-308.

Grodecki, Louis. “Les vitraux de Saint-Denis. L’Enfance du Christ.” InDe Aribus Opuscula XL: Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky, ed. Millard Meiss. New York, 1960, 170-186.

________. Les vitraux de Saint-Denis. Études sur le vitrail au XIIe siècle (Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi, Série Études, vol. 1). Paris, 1976. (For the assessment of the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt, see p. 67, footnote 65.)

Hayward, Jane, and Walter Cahn, et al. Radiance and Reflection: Medieval Art from the Raymond Pitcairn Collection. Exhibition Catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1982. (Hayward’s entry on the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt [pp. 84-87] attempts to take a middle position between Grodecki’s belief that the panel is a forgery and my own argument that it is authentically medieval with only minor restorations.)

Lautier, Claudine. “Les vitraux de Saint-Denis. État de recherche.” InLe Vitrail roman et les arts de la couleur. Nouvelles approches sur le vitrail du XIIe siècle. Revue d’Auvergne  570 (2004): 99-115. (The first published acceptance by a French scholar of the authenticity of the Pitcairn Flight into Egypt. Lautier, one of Grodecki’s students, traveled to Glencairn to examine the panel in person.)

________. “Les vitraux du XIIe siècle.” In Saint-Denis dans l’éternité des rois et reines de France (Collection La Grâce d’une cathédrale). Strasbourg, 2015, 192-205. (The Pitcairn Flight into Egypt receives a full-page, color illustration in this lavish book, and the caption characterizes it as “l’un des mieux conservés de l’époque de Suger” [“one of the best preserved from Suger’s time”].)

Stokstad, Marilyn, and Michael W. Cothren. Art History, 5th edition. Pearson Education, 2014. (The Pitcairn Flight into Egypt appears as fig. 17-3 on p. 500 of this art history survey textbook.)

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.