Glencairn's Cloister

Glencairn Museum News | Number 8, 2016

Glencairn's cloister as seen from the arcade on the northeast side.

Figure 1: A portico on Glencairn's southwest corner leads into the cloister.

Glencairn’s cloister reproduces many of the same architectural elements found in a Western medieval monastery. A central court with gardens is open to the sky. A covered walkway around the perimeter gives access to the court; pointed arches, four on each side, form an open arcade. During medieval times cloisters served as a quiet place for religious contemplation, and cloister arcades were often carved with symbolic sculptures to encourage mindful meditation. In planning Glencairn’s cloister, Pitcairn, a member of the Bryn Athyn New Church congregation (Swedenborgian Christian), continued this tradition. The visual focal point of the space is a series of symbolic bird capitals surmounting the columns that form the inner arcade. According to E. Bruce Glenn, author of Glencairn: The Story of a Home, in New Church tradition birds are used as spiritual symbols of “those ideals of the mind that lift us above worldly concerns as the flight of a bird draws our eyes from the earth.” Twelve species of birds are depicted on the capitals: peacock, dove, bird of paradise, stork, golden eagle, hen, swan, quail, flamingo, rooster, ibis and pelican (Figures 12-23). “Each stands for a specific ideal to be striven for; and the three [capitals] together on a side present a general aspect of family love” (Glenn 1990, p. 179-180). For example, one of the capitals is carved with turtle doves, representing the ideal of marriage love (Figure 13).


Figure 2: Facing granite seats on the north wall of the cloister provide a view of the valley below. One armrest features a carved ram, and the other a ewe. At Glencairn sheep and lambs symbolize the importance of family.


Raymond Pitcairn had for many years been part of a symbolism committee, made up of New Church ministers and laymen, who met during the construction of Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Their role was to develop a symbolic plan for the church based on the Bible and the works of Emanuel Swedenborg. While developing the plan for Glencairn’s cloister, Pitcairn consulted a 1916 theological study about the symbolism of birds written by Rev. Carl Theophilus Odhner. Pitcairn also worked closely with Rev. Hugo L. Odhner. A rough sketch of the cloister plan has survived in Pitcairn’s own handwriting (Figure 3), as well as a drawing by Hugo Odhner (Figure 4) and several typed versions of Odhner’s plan.

Figure 3: A rough sketch of the cloister plan in Raymond Pitcairn's own handwriting. Glencairn Museum Archives.

Figure 4: Drawing of the cloister by Rev. Hugo Odhner. Glencairn Museum Archives.

Benjamin Tweedale, originally from Scotland, was one of the stone carvers who worked on the bird capitals and other sculptures in Glencairn’s cloister during the 1930s. In 1947 he visited Glencairn and reminisced with Raymond Pitcairn about the cloister’s construction and decoration. After this visit Pitcairn dictated notes about their conversation and identified the three stone carvers who made the capitals: Benjamin Tweedale, Attilio Marchiori and Pietro F. Menghi.


Figure 5: Seven capitals, intended for Glencairn’s cloister, are lined up on the balustrade of Cairnwood. Glencairn Museum Archives.


Figure 6: Glencairn's cloister during construction. The temporary wooden door in the photograph is on the east side of the cloister; today this is an ornate copper door providing entry to the Great Hall. Glencairn Museum Archives.


Figure 7: The west side of the cloister during construction. Glencairn Museum Archives.


Gabriele, Raymond and Mildred’s oldest daughter, was married to Rev. Willard Pendleton in June of 1934, while Glencairn was still under construction. The wedding reception took place at the Assembly Hall, a building on the grounds of the Academy of the New Church campus in Bryn Athyn. The elaborate decorations for the reception made use of the capitals and columns that were being prepared at the time for Glencairn's cloister. The sculptures were placed around the walls of the Assembly Hall along with Chinese lanterns, potted plants and small trees, transforming the space into an elaborate formal garden. In later years, after Glencairn was completed, brides were often photographed in the cloister (Figure 8).


Figure 8: Eleanor Stroh (Hansen), who worked at Glencairn for the Pitcairn family, was photographed in the cloister in 1951 in her wedding dress. The wedding dress was a gift from the Pitcairns. Glencairn Museum continues the tradition of wedding photography in the cloister.


Figure 9: The southeast corner of the cloister. The covered porch above the cloister roof is a sleeping porch attached to the master bedroom and bath.


The design of Glencairn’s cloister is unique, and is not a copy of any particular medieval example. However, during the design of the building Pitcairn often used medieval buildings and works of art as inspiration. He seems to have been heavily influenced by his 1921 visit to George Grey Barnard’s Cloisters, a museum of medieval art in Manhattan. The visit took place while Pitcairn was in the early stages of formulating a design for Glencairn. Barnard’s museum, which opened in 1914, included four French medieval cloisters that he had imported and painstakingly reassembled. Pitcairn admired Barnard’s innovative ideas about exhibitry, and in 1922 he praised the museum in a letter to his brother Theodore: “Barnard’s cloister stands head and shoulders above the private and museum collections because his objects were made part of the building which he built them into” (January 12, 1922). (For more information about the unique historical connections between Glencairn Museum and the Cloisters Museum in New York City, see Julia Perratore, “The Cloisters Connection,” Glencairn Museum News, No. 3, 2015.)


Figure 10: Late spring gardens in bloom in Glencairn's cloister.


In 1925 Barnard sold his medieval collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the museum began designing a new building for the Cloisters. James J. Rorimer (who would later become one of the “Monuments Men” during World War II) was a key figure in the planning of the new Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, and was named its first curator when it opened in 1938. The staff at the Cloisters was well aware of Pitcairn’s extensive medieval art collection, and in 1965 a group of them came to Glencairn for an all-day visit and tour. Rorimer, by now the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was part of this group, and posed for a historic photograph in the cloister (Figure 11). The relationship between Glencairn and the Cloisters continued after Pitcairn’s death in 1966. During the 1970s art historians from the Met researched and catalogued the Pitcairn medieval collection, resulting in the 1982 exhibition Radiance and Reflection: Medieval Art from the Raymond Pitcairn Collection, held at the Cloisters.


Figure 11: Mildred (third from left) and Raymond Pitcairn (fifth from right) pose with James Rorimer (left of Pitcairn, holding a hat) and a group from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The photograph was taken by Michael Pitcairn, Raymond and Mildred's son, in November of 1965.


Visitors to Glencairn are welcome to explore the cloister during any season. If you have not yet had the opportunity to stroll the arcade and enjoy the cloister garden, the fountain, and the view from the ram and ewe bench, please feel free to do so between dawn and dusk.

Figure 12: Cloister capital, east side: peacock.

Figure 13: Cloister capital, east side: dove.

Figure 14: Cloister capital, east side: bird of paradise.

Figure 15: Cloister capital, south side: stork.

Figure 16: Cloister capital, south side: golden eagle.

Figure 17: Cloister capital, south side: hen.

Figure 18: Cloister capital, west side: swan.

Figure 19: Cloister capital, west side: quail.

Figure 20: Cloister capital, west side: flamingo.

Figure 21: Cloister capital, north side: rooster.

Figure 22: Cloister capital, north side: ibis.

Figure 23: Cloister capital, north side: pelican.

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