A “Visitation” from Sainte-Radegonde

Glencairn Museum News | Number 10, 2017

 

Figure 1: The Visitation. From the Church of Sainte-Radegone in Poitiers, France, c. 1270-75. Now in Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, PA, 03.SG.43.

 

This radiant panel of medieval stained glass (Figure 1) captures the joyous embrace of Saint Elizabeth (pregnant with John the Baptist) as she welcomes the arrival of her cousin, the Virgin Mary (pregnant with Jesus), to her home in the Judean hills for a three-month visit (Luke 1:39-56). The biblical account tells us that at Mary’s arrival,

“Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.’”

The figure at the left seems to be Mary—both because of the emphasis on blue in her clothing and because of her relative size, slightly smaller, perhaps to indicate her youthfulness in relation to her elder cousin.

The panel’s design, reflecting the design of the thirteenth-century window that contained it, is distinctive, especially in the way it juxtaposes a brilliantly colored border strip and narrative scene against a colorless field of grisaille glass. 2 If we imagine this panel installed within the opening of a window next to a panel designed as its mirror image, what we would have seen was a full-color medallion floating on a field of grisaille, and flanked by bands of full-color ornament serving as a framing border. Meredith Lillich, the undisputed authority on the style and use of grisaille in French Gothic stained glass, has dubbed this system the “Button Window.” Lawrence Saint’s 1911 watercolor rendering of a register portraying another scene from this window that is still installed in the church gives a clear sense of the original design system (Figure 2).

 

Figure 2: Lawrence B. Saint, 1911 watercolor rendering of the scene of the Flight into Egypt from the church of Sainte-Radegonde in Poitiers (reproduced in Hugh Arnold and Lawrence B. Saint, Stained Glass of the Middle Ages in England and France. London, 1913, pl. XV).

 

Equally distinctive as the window’s design is the bold expressionism of the brightly colored figures. The slashing folds of the angular drapery and the crisscrossing overlap of gestural arms suggest the three-dimensionality of these embracing women, but the way these features are painted also allows them to be read as flat silhouettes of solid color. The floating foliate form that fills the leftward bulge of the blue field reinforces this planar sense and is a key component of a rhythmic, measured repetition of reds across the expanse of the panel. The skillful choice of two hues of blue allows viewers to distinguish the inky saturation of the background from the lighter and more muted tone of the left figure’s drapery and head cloth. But perhaps the most noticeable stylistic feature here is the eye-popping expressiveness of the face of the woman on the right (Figure 3). The facial intensity of her welcoming gaze was probably once matched by that of her cousin, but the current head of the woman on the left is a modern replacement painted at the turn of the twentieth century.

 

Figure 3: Detail of the heads of the two figures in the Glencairn Visitation.

 

As we will see, the details of how this panel of thirteenth-century stained glass entered the art market and made its way to Glencairn are fuzzy. But this much is clear: the panel was originally part of the glazing of the church of Sainte-Radegonde in Poitiers, France.

Sainte-Radegonde in Poitiers

The church of Sainte-Radegonde was founded outside the city of Poitiers, as part of the Abbey of the Holy Cross, by Queen Radegonde, one of the wives of the French Merovingian King Clotaire I, who ruled from 511-558. Radegonde was known in her lifetime for her piety and her acts of mercy, and eventually she retired to the abbey to live out her life as a holy hermit. Because of her exemplary life and pious donations, after her death she was named a saint, and the church she had founded for the Abbey of the Holy Cross was dedicated to her. The current church (Figure 4) was constructed much later, between 1083 and 1099, and it was subsequently transformed by Gothic additions and restorations from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries. One of these Gothic campaigns led to the creation of the early life of Christ window that originally included the “Visitation” now at Glencairn. 

 

Figure 4: Church of Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers, France. Exterior view from the West (photo Andrew Tallon, mappinggothic.org).

 

During her lifetime, Radegonde was known as a healer, and her medieval cult became associated specifically with her power to heal gout and ailments of the limbs. In the second half of the thirteenth century, the miraculous healings of many pilgrims who visited the church are documented, especially in the 1260s. It was perhaps his own experience with the effects of diphtheria in the 1250s that led Count Alphonse de Poitiers (1220-1271, younger brother of King Louis IX) to donate money in 1269 and 1270 to “finish” the glazing of Sainte-Radegonde, and his portrait appears as a donor in a rose window representing the Last Judgment that is still installed in the church. The glazing campaign funded by the Count—and perhaps begun even earlier than his donation—included a series of windows, as distinct in subject as they are in style. In addition to the Last Judgment rose, there are windows portraying the early life of Christ (which included the Glencairn “Visitation”), his passion, the legend of the true cross, the parable of Lazarus and Dives, scenes from the lives of Saints Blaise and Lawrence, as well as an extensive cycle devoted to the life and miracles of Sainte Radegonde herself.

The windows from this glazing program in the second half of the thirteenth-century suffered heavily during a 1562 attack on the church by Huguenots, who smashed the lower registers of the windows with iron pikes. There is evidence of periodic minor repairs during the ensuing centuries, but a thorough restoration of the glazing had to wait until 1900, when the windows were completely reworked by the heavy hands of Henri Carot (1850-1919) and his stained-glass workshop.4 Carot over-cleaned and repainted many of the panels, and he maintained scenes from the early life of Christ window at the bottom of the Gothic tracery window that held the Last Judgment rose, where they had been moved and inserted at the beginning of the 18th century. A double row of remaining panels can be seen in the partial view of that window in figure 5. The panels were originally created, however, for one of a pair of simpler lancet openings, comparable to those seen here in the bay just to the right of their current location. The early life of Christ window‘s original location was the easternmost bay on the south wall of the nave.5

 

Figure 5: Church of Sainte-Radegonde, Poiters, France. Interior view of the north wall (photo Andrew Tallon, mappinggothic.org).

 

Although we do not know when or from whom Raymond Pitcairn purchased the “Visitation,”6 there is evidence to document the panel’s existence in the hands of Carot while he was restoring the stained glass of Sainte-Radegonde. French art historian Catherine Brisac discovered in a cache of drawings by Carot, now in the archives of the French Ministry of Culture, a rendering of the Glencairn “Visitation” that even includes lines created by cracks within the glass and some modern replacements, including the head of the Virgin. It would appear that Carot restored this panel, heavily disfigured by cracks and replacement glass, and rather than installing it within the church, kept it for his own collection or sold it into the art market, from which it eventually came to the attention of Raymond Pitcairn.

In its current state, the Glencairn “Visitation” is much easier to see and much closer to its original appearance than it was when it was purchased to add to the collection of Gothic architectural arts that Raymond Pitcairn was assembling in Bryn Athyn. This collection was designed to enhance the education of the artists working on his building projects, notably Bryn Athyn Cathedral. In 1981, in preparation for the Radiance and Reflection exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that introduced many masterworks from the Pitcairn Collection to the art historical world, renowned stained-glass conservator Melville Greenland was engaged to restore this panel before it was exhibited in New York. Because of the disfiguringly large leads used to consolidate a heavily damaged panel, as well as the awkwardness of some of the replacement pieces of “infill,” presumably added by Carot around 1900, the panel was a prime candidate for restoration. Greenland used thin copper foil ribbons to repair most of the cracks, making the distinction between consolidating repairs and original lead lines much clearer to modern viewers. Greenland was also able to use pieces of Bryn Athyn glass from the storeroom at the Cathedral for repairs within the red mantle of the right figure, closely matching the hue and texture of the hand-made glass employed by the original, thirteenth-century artists in Poitiers.

The Christmas Window in the Glencairn Chapel

Raymond Pitcairn seems to have been interested in the windows of Poitiers before the Glencairn “Visitation” became part of his collection of medieval architectural arts. He was probably introduced to Poitevin stained glass through a drawing made by American stained-glass artist Lawrence Saint (1885-1961), who had been involved in Pitcairn’s project to create medieval-inspired stained-glass windows for Bryn Athyn Cathedral since 1916 and advised Pitcairn on the purchase of medieval stained glass through the 1920s. In 1911 Saint had painted a watercolor of the “Flight into Egypt” from Sainte-Radegonde—executed during a honeymoon trip to Europe to study medieval stained glass. This watercolor was published in 1913 in the book on medieval stained glass Saint co-authored with Hugh Arnold (Figure 2), a book that was in Pitcairn’s own library.

In September 1923, Pitcairn wrote to Albert Cullen—whom Pitcairn had sent to Canterbury on a study trip7—asking if Cullen could travel to Poitiers to create “a very careful tracing of this panel [of the “Flight into Egypt”] and a colored rendering which will give as near as possible the true color value” (Figure 6).8 Cullen fulfilled this request, but he only documented the figural medallions, believing that the grisailles and borders were later in date.9 Since Pitcairn wanted Lawrence Saint to make a modern copy of the panel, including the grisailles and borders, he wrote to Cullen asking him to look into the prospect of having the window photographed.10 This must have been a challenging request. On April 10, 1928, Lawrence Saint took up the task, writing to local photographer Jules Robuchon, asking if he could take the required pictures.11 On May 21, Robuchon wrote to Pitcairn indicating that they had been taken.12 But by that time, Saint seems to have already created a modern stained-glass panel that copies the Sainte-Radegonde “Flight into Egypt.”13

 

Figure 6: This painting on cardboard of the “Flight into Egypt” from the Church of Sainte-Radegonde was made by Albert Cullen in 1924. The six sections were mailed to Lawrence Saint in Bryn Athyn.

 

Saint’s copy of the Sainte-Radegonde Flight would eventually be installed at the bottom of the Christmas Window in the Chapel at Glencairn (Figures 7 and 8), but it would be some time before that happened. The task of creating the rest of this window fell to Winfred Hyatt (1891-1959), the designer of most of the neo-medieval windows at Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn, and the director of the Bryn Athyn stained-glass studio since 1916.14 Hyatt referred to this window—that was not complete until the end of 1956—as the “medieval window,” a description that fits it well, since the two medallions above the Flight are also copies from the same window at Sainte-Radegonde, perhaps based on Cullen’s other full-color renderings or on Robuchon’s photographs. The partial medallion at the top of the window, however, was presumably designed by Hyatt himself, since the “Annunciation to the Virgin” has not survived from the window at Sainte-Radegonde.

A frustrating question remains: was there a relationship between the Glencairn “Visitation” and the Glencairn chapel window? No evidence survives to indicate that the artists who created the modern window were even aware of the existence of a panel from the medieval window on which it was based, even though it was sitting nearby in Raymond Pitcairn’s own study collection.

 

Figure 7: Lawrence Saint and Winfred Hyatt, Christmas Window in Glencairn’s Chapel, 1928-1956.

 
 

Figure 8: Detail of the Flight into Egypt medallion in Glencairn’s Chapel.

 

Michael W. Cothren, PhD
Consultative Curator of Medieval Stained Glass at Glencairn Museum

Scheuer Family Professor Emeritus of Humanities, Art Department, Swarthmore College

Endnotes

1 I would like to express from the beginning my appreciation for the research Kirsten and Ed Gyllenhaal did for me in the archives at Glencairn as I prepared this article. The material they uncovered was critical in telling the story that is about to unfold.

2 “Grisaille,” meaning “greyish” in French, is the art historical term for monochromatic pictures painted in shades of black, grey, and white. In stained glass it refers to colorless glass painted with black trace. Here the “grey” is created with cross-hatching.

3 Lillich, Armor of Light, p. 102. For a list of examples, see eadem, “Band Window,” p. 31, n. 15.

4 For Carot’s work at Sainte-Radegonde, see Lillich, Armor of Light, pp. 80-81.

5 Ibid., pp. 84, 102.

6 Although Jane Hayward believed that this panel was purchased in 1924 from the Parisian dealer François Haussaire (Radiance and Reflection, pp. 221, 223), recent research in the Glencairn archives carried out by Kirsten and Ed Gyllenhaal revealed that though Pitcairn did purchase a panel showing full color figures set against grisailles from this dealer in 1924, a photograph attached to the correspondence with Haussaire reproduces another panel at Glencairn matching this same description: 03.SG.63. They were unable to find any mention of Pitcairn’s purchase of the Glencairn “Visitation” in the archives.

7 Cullen was employed full-time by Raymond Pitcairn from 1928 to 1942, but Cullen had been doing contract work for him as early as 1922.

8 Raymond Pitcairn letter to Albert Cullen, September 7, 1923. Glencairn Museum Archives.

9 Raymond Pitcairn letter to Albert Cullen, December 12, 1924; Albert Cullen letter to Raymond Pitcairn, March 6, 1925. Glencairn Museum Archives.

10 Raymond Pitcairn letter to Albert Cullen, March 27, 1925; Albert Cullen letter to Raymond Pitcairn, April 14, 1925. Glencairn Museum Archives.

11 Lawrence Saint letter to J. Rebuchos [sic], April 10, 1928. Glencairn Museum Archives.

12 Jules Robuchon to Raymond Pitcairn, May 21, 1928. Glencairn Museum Archives. (This letter has a colorful account of the acrobatic danger involved with taking the photographs.)

13 Lawrence Saint letter to Raymond Pitcairn, May 1928, thanking him for the payment received for “the work done on the Radegonde Panel.” Glencairn Museum Archives.

14 For the history of the Bryn Athyn stained-glass project, including the place of Winfred Hyatt and Lawrence Saint within it, see “A Heavenly Light.”

Bibliography

“A Heavenly Light: The Bryn Athyn Stained Glass Studio and Factory,” Glencairn Museum News, October 2015: https://glencairnmuseum.org/newsletter/october-2015-a-heavenly-light-the-bryn-athyn-stained-glass-f.html

Arnold, Hugh, and Lawrence B. Saint. Stained Glass of the Middle Ages in England and France. London, 1913. (pl. XV reproduces Lawrence Saint’s watercolor of the Flight into Egypt from Sainte-Radegonde)

Glenn, E. Bruce. Glencairn: The Story of a Home. Bryn Athyn, Academy of the New Church, 1990. (The Glencairn Chapel window based on the early life of Christ window at Sainte-Radegonde is reproduced in color on p. 29.)

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, pp. 221-223 and colorplate XII.

Lillich, Meredith Parsons. “The Band Window: A Theory of Origin and Development.” Gesta 9/1 (1970): 26-33.

________. “Stained Glass from Western France (1250-1325) in American Collections.” Journal of Glass Studies 25 (1983): 121-128. (The Visitation is discussed on pp. 123-125)

________. The Armor of Light: Stained Glass in Western France, 1250-1325. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994. (Sainte-Radegonde is discussed on pp. 76-115)

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