The Symbolism of Sheep and Lambs at Glencairn

Glencairn Museum News | Number 10, 2016

In the summer of 1989, Michael, Lachlan, Karen, Garthowen and Bethel Pitcairn posed in front of the main entrance to Glencairn.

During medieval times in Europe, cloisters, churches, and even private homes featured sculptures carved according to a rich symbolic language. Meditating on the meaning of these images was believed to have spiritual benefit for the viewer. In planning the decorative program for Glencairn, the medieval-style home for his family and art collections, Raymond Pitcairn was continuing this artistic tradition. Pitcairn, a member of the New Church congregation in Bryn Athyn, drew much of the visual language for his home from the Bible and the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). (See “Glencairn’s Cloister,” Glencairn Museum News, No. 8, 2016.)


Figure 1: The wall above the elevator door on the first floor of Glencairn features a medallion in glass mosaic depicting the Pitcairn family as a ram, a ewe, and nine lambs. In addition to admiring medieval stained glass, Raymond Pitcairn was fascinated with the mosaics of Italy—especially those in the 5th and 6th century churches of Ravenna—and wanted to decorate his home with mosaics of a similar quality. Pitcairn’s craftsmen developed formulas for making their own glass mosaics in the Bryn Athyn glassworks.


A recent count of depictions of sheep in the works of art created to decorate Glencairn—including sculpture, metalwork, and mosaic—discovered that there are nearly 200 of them, usually occurring together in family groups of a ram, ewe, and lambs. It is clear that Raymond Pitcairn meant these groups of sheep to represent the importance of family, but he may also have intended an additional level of meaning. Sheep and lambs are often used in art and poetry to represent qualities of gentleness. In New Church tradition, when sheep are mentioned in the Bible they are sometimes intended as spiritual symbols of people who love their neighbors as themselves, and act charitably toward them. Lambs, on the other hand, which rely on ewes and rams for sustenance and instruction, represent the qualities of innocence and willingness to be led.


Figure 2: Mildred and Raymond Pitcairn pose for a family photograph with their children in the woods just below Glencairn around 1936. Absent from the picture is Gabriele, who was married in 1934.


Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn are remembered as having been loving and involved parents. Letters in the Glencairn Museum Archives testify to a concern for their childrens’ health, schoolwork, interests and behavior. The Pitcairns believed that one of the greatest joys for a married couple is the raising of children. In a speech Raymond gave at the dedication ceremony for their Catskill mountain home, he said that “material possessions . . . do not bring happiness. . . . Happiness comes from within and is given in a life of love to God and love to one another. We know that these loves must fill a house to make it a home” (Jennie Gaskell, Biography of Raymond Pitcairn, 171). Although most of the Pitcairns' children were beginning to move into adult life by the time Glencairn was completed in 1939, it continued to be a home bustling with family activity. Grandchildren soon began to arrive for regular weekly visits.

Once a visitor begins looking for sheep and lambs at Glencairn, he or she will begin to see them everywhere—on both the interior and exterior of the building. Below is a small sampling of the nearly 200 examples of sheep and lambs depicted in the original artwork created for Glencairn in the Bryn Athyn workshops.


Figure 3: This metalwork lamb sculpture is perched on top of the roof of the upstairs living room.


Figure 4: This metalwork lamb sculpture (see also Figure 3), on top of the upstairs living room, faces Bryn Athyn Cathedral. The Philadelphia skyline is visible in the distance.


Figure 5: Two large capitals depicting families of rams, ewes, and lambs help support the roof on the south side of Glencairn's tower.


Figure 6: Multiple carvings of sheep decorate the exterior stone fabric of Glencairn. 


Figure 7: A twin-arched window on the north side of Glencairn's Cloister provides a view toward the valley. A special bench was carved from granite for Raymond and Mildred—two seats, facing each other. One armrest features a ram, and the other a ewe.


Figure 8: A ram and ewe face each other outside the window of Glencairn's master bedroom on the third floor.


Figure 9: This capital, which helps support the roof of Glencairn's north porch, includes an image of a child.


Figure 10: This corbel in the shape of a ram helps support the third-floor balcony in the Great Hall.


Figure 11: This capital rests on one of the engaged columns in the Great Hall, beside the door to the north porch.


Figure 12: This massive bronze double door leading from the Great Hall to the Cloister features a hand-wrought Monel metal handle on each side. The left handle is a ewe, and the right is a ram.


Figure 13: The Great Hall features a large fireplace flanked on either side by carved teakwood benches. The armrests of both benches are in the shape of a ram and a ewe. The bench on the right side is carved with the names of Mildred’s parents and siblings. The bench on the left side (pictured) is carved with the names of Raymond’s parents and siblings. The ends of the benches are carved with the names of Mildred and Raymond’s children.


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