Glencairn Museum News | Number 8, 2017
In March 1931, the opening of “The Display Collection of the Art of the Middle Ages” at what was then called the Pennsylvania Museum of Art was a significant event not only in the life of the art museum but also for the presentation of medieval art in America. The fourteen galleries constituting the new wing were distinguished (as they still are) by architecture—individual elements and entire rooms—defining each space, which when followed according to the prescribed order (Figure 1) offered the visitor a progressive presentation of medieval art from Byzantium in the early Middle Ages, through Romanesque and Gothic art for the Church, to the rise of secular patronage in the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (Figure 2).
As is well known to those with an interest in medieval art and museology, the emphasis on architecture as a means to frame works of art in an atmospheric and historic setting was a significant step in the realization of an entire program of period rooms across the second floor of the main museum building (which range from sixteenth-century India to eighteenth-century London and are known popularly as the “walk through time”), and a successful representation of efforts by American collectors and scholars to present the art of the Middle Ages in context. 1
The reasoning behind this treatment—as explained by museum director Fiske Kimball in the April 1931 Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum —was to counter the “problem of the American museum in presenting to the public the art of a bygone European period” created by the obvious lack of “old Gothic churches for our public to pass daily . . . .” 2 If presented in “neutral halls and galleries,” Kimball contended, how would visitors understand the character of medieval objects as “living embodiments in plastic form of the mighty organism of the Middle Ages, with its piety, its chivalry, and its romance?” 3 At the time, the effect was described as an “uninterrupted chronological synthesis of the art of the Middle Ages,” reinforced by the acquisition of monumental architectural ensembles, such as the great twelfth-century portal of the abbey church of Saint Laurent l’Abbaye, from the Nièvre region of France 4 (Figure 3). Certainly the reception of the galleries and the overall display was favorable, demonstrated by the various letters of praise directed to Francis Henry Taylor, the curator responsible for the new section. 5
A final emphasis of Kimball’s presentation of the opening of the medieval wing was reserved to assert the absolute authenticity of the architectural elements, aside from what he described as a “simple uniform base throughout,” meant to integrate the objects into the overall display.6 Decades later, although curatorial research has demonstrated that his confidence was sometimes misplaced, the claim of genuineness should be understood as a way of underlining the museological purity of the concept. 7 This was an important distinction, for the contextual approach to the presentation of medieval art in America saw examples where the relative originality of these framing elements to displays could be called into question, for instance at the Detroit Institute of Art, which featured simulated medieval architecture alongside original elements. 8
More generally, the effort to characterize Philadelphia’s display through originality distinguished it by an air of academic seriousness and professionalism from earlier major American examples of the context-driven approach that were arguably more romantic in spirit. Best-known and most influential of these was the Cloisters, a warehouse-like structure filled with rich displays of medieval architecture and sculpture assembled by the sculptor George Grey Barnard that opened in December, 1914; its purchase in 1925 by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. for the Metropolitan Museum of Art led to its eventual reconstruction as the delightful museum branch we know and love today (Figure 4). Other museums like Boston and Chicago had experimented with a limited use of architectural elements from the Middle Ages to create atmospheric juxtapositions with objects, while some private collectors also found these effects evocative and compelling—one need only think of the home of Isabella Stewart Gardener for confirmation of this appeal. 9
Raymond Pitcairn, too, was especially well-attuned to the understanding of medieval works in context, both as exemplars for craftsmen in building the great Cathedral of the General Church of the New Jerusalem at Bryn Athyn, beginning in 1913, and in recognizing the potential for such works of art to be integrated into more meaningful historical presentations. A letter to his brother Theo in 1922 reveals the sensitivity of his perception—no doubt in anticipation of his future building project at Glencairn—but that also reflects a broader mentality at play in these sophisticated circles:
“One of the most striking differences between the art of the past and that of today is the fact that the ancient art objects were not isolated things which were more or less forced into their surroundings; they were part and parcel of the temple, the acropolis, the house or tomb for which they were made.” 10
A visit to the medieval galleries in the Philadelphia Museum of Art today suggests a vital connection to this watershed moment—for sure, an advantage of the permanent footprint of the architecture that dominates the space—yet the vision of the original curators has always been carefully considered as part of the long-term management of the displays (Figure 5). Nonetheless, there have been major changes, which can be grasped from the statement that at the opening, the majority of the works now on display were yet to enter the collection. This is perhaps surprising in light of this feeling of uninterrupted continuity, but in fact, the practical and economic circumstances of the museum in the early 1930s meant that the permanent collection of medieval works of art was limited.
Aside from major outlays for architectural installations ranging from a cloister to a room from the Venetian Palazzo Soranzo-Van Axel, the most significant works of art that had been acquired were examples of stained glass (including three rondels of knights, later discovered to be from the 13th-century Sainte Chapelle in Paris that had been purchased and brought back to the U.S. in 1803 by a Philadelphian named William Poyntell, and remarkably count among the earliest instances of medieval art to be collected and brought to this country (Figure 6)), and a group of roughly five hundred and fifty pieces of mostly English ecclesiastical woodcarvings.11 Purchased at the recommendation of the Gilded Age metalworker Samuel Yellin, the woodcarvings were considered suitable reference materials for American artisans, recalling Mr. Pitcairn’s own motivations as a collector and his belief in the direct educational value of medieval objects for craftsmen.12
In order to populate the galleries, then, Kimball and Taylor arrived at the ingenious—albeit precarious—solution of borrowing works of art from institutions, dealers and private collectors. These included the Morgan Library, Joseph Widener, George Grey Barnard and a syndicate of art dealers who had purchased the treasury of the cathedral of Saint Blaise in Brunswick, known as the “Guelph Treasure,” from the Dukes of Brunswick-Lüneberg. In 1930-31, this fabulous grouping of eighty-two superb examples of medieval metalwork was taken on a tour of American museums, and was shown in Philadelphia during the opening month of the new galleries. 13
Yet by far the most generous lender was Raymond Pitcairn, who lent a large and varied group of around seventy sculptures and related works of art. This is surprisingly not as well known as it might be, given the overall high quality of the objects lent and their importance to the success of the displays. In fact, Mr. Pitcairn’s generous participation stretched not only to lending such a tremendous number of important sculptures, where they could be appreciated by the American public for the first time, but also in allowing many to remain on view at the museum for decades.
Given Mr. Pitcairn’s reputation as the guiding force behind the building of the cathedral in Bryn Athyn, and as a significant area collector of medieval art who had gained repute for spectacular purchases like the stained glass King from the Tree of Jesse window from the Cathedral of Soissons, acquired at the Henry Lawrence sale in 1921 (Figure 7), Kimball and Taylor must have hoped at the outset of their project to interest him and to gain his support for the museum’s plans. While the exact circumstances of the discussion remain unclear, a fascinating letter of introduction from Taylor to Pitcairn written just after the former had begun his work at the museum in November 1927 may represent the beginning of their acquaintance (Figure 8). Taylor explains his studies at Chartres cathedral and at the Sorbonne with the eminent French medievalist Henri Focillon, and Focillon’s interest in Bryn Athyn Cathedral as a significant architectural contribution to the revival of Gothic architecture in America. Charmingly, Taylor also revealed that:
“Having spent my childhood on a country place within walking distance of Bryn Athyn, I have always been deeply interested in the Cathedral. And, in fact it is largely this early association which led me to devote myself to the study of medieval art.”14
It was surely gladdening for Pitcairn to read that beyond the benefits this fine place of worship brought to his community, how the great Bryn Athyn Cathedral held special significance for others, too. In any case, the tone of the correspondence was genial between the two (and also between Pitcairn and Kimball), and it seems that the proposal of ongoing loans from Mr. Pitcairn’s collection was readily agreed. Indeed, a letter from Taylor thanking Pitcairn for his support underlines that “it will . . . be very instructive for the public to see these objects in their proper milieu,” further revealing the level of their sympathetic shared interest in the contextual display of medieval art.15 (One area of the collections that seems to have been excluded from consideration was stained glass due to the logistics of installation and the museum’s earlier acquisitions, some of which mirror Mr. Pitcairn’s, although the collection is nowhere near as extensive.)
The loans were received in several groups, commencing with a first batch of nine sculptures in February 1930 that included a Flemish painted wooden Lamentation (12.SP.08; described as a French “Pièta” dating to the early sixteenth century), and the unusual late twelfth-century French Compound Support with Allegorical Figures (09.SP.113) that at the time of the loan was said to have come from the cloister of Saint-Loup de Naud (Figure 9) and has since been connected with several other potential original locations.16
The next wave of works came to the museum in January 1931, consisting of around forty sculptures. Ranging from the Bust of an Apocalyptic Elder, possibly from Parthenay (09.SP.93) to capitals from the monastery of Saint Michel de Cuxa (09.SP.131), to the two reliefs from a house in Cluny (09.SP.105 and 09.SP.97), now displayed in Glencairn’s Great Hall (Figures 10a-b), the group contained many of the most art historically significant works in the collection. Further groups of loans were received in the weeks leading up to the opening, including sculpture, tapestry and even the fresco of Christ in Majesty from a church in Spoleto, Italy (Figure 11, see lead photo; also now in Glencairn's Great Hall).
Reflecting the strengths of Mr. Pitcairn’s sculpture collection, the greatest impact of the loans was seen in the sequence of galleries dedicated to Romanesque and early Gothic art, centered on the thirteenth-century cloister from Saint Genis des Fontaines in the Roussillon, the neighboring gallery dominated by the façade from Saint Laurent L’Abbaye, and two galleries of “Romanesque Crafts” located within the side portals of St. Laurent.
Photographs of the installation show the impact of the “half hundred” Pitcairn loans arranged in these galleries, and the way in which the sculptures integrated so well with the atmospheric context and objects obtained from other sources17 (Figure 12). For example, the Arch with Figures and Fantastic Creatures (09.SP.84), now thought to be an imitation of a twelfth-century sculpture from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, was juxtaposed with a pair of Italian half-columns dating to c. 1200 that bear late twelfth-century foliate impost blocks from the Ile de France, and a late twelfth-century Throne said to be from St. Genis des Fontaines—all already acquired by the museum—to create a seamless composition.18 Likewise, a number of Romanesque Pitcairn capitals, such as the Cuxa capital with lions (Figure 13) arranged around the arch bases of the cloister that displayed a range of ornamental, animal and biblical imagery, would have impressed upon viewers the variety of motifs exploited by medieval sculptors, and the potential meanings of their imagery to a monastic audience, much as they do today.
In the St. Laurent portal gallery (Figures 14, 15) Romanesque figurative pieces lent by Mr. Pitcairn featured prominently; in the absence of sculpted imagery on the portal itself, this was an effective demonstration of the powerful impression of portal sculpture at the great French cathedrals, and how architectural development spurred artistic ones. This was particularly the case for the twelfth-century French sculptures of Moses with Tablets of the Law and the enthroned Virgin and Child on either side, as both had been connected with the famous west portal of Chartres.19 Today, the Moses (given by Mr. Pitcairn to the Metropolitan Museum in 1965) is known to have come from the portal of the Cathedral of Noyon, in the Picardy region of France, and dated to c. 1170.20
The Virgin and Child (Figure 16) relates to a very similar group in the Musée du Louvre, which in turn has been compared to figures of the enthroned Virgin on the tympanum of the right door of the west portal of Chartres and one in the same position on the west door of Notre Dame, Paris.21 Although it is agreed that the sculptures were produced in the Île de France region around 1150 by sculptors directly aware of these portals, both were made to be placed on an altar rather than integrated into an architectural surround. Despite its weathered surface, losses and complex condition of the Virgin’s head, traces of fine details are visible in areas of the drapery and throne, and the sculpture, a rarity in U.S. collections, reveals the fascinating influence of the monumental figurative cathedral portals on the production of large independent sculptures as early as the mid-twelfth century.
One further Pitcairn object in the St. Laurent gallery linked to portal sculpture was the upper half of a Crowned Woman (09.SP.153; see Figure 15, below the tapestry in the photograph) which was reported as coming from Strasbourg, and has elicited comparison with the full-length figures of Wise Virgins decorating portals on the west façade of the cathedral. Although carved in limestone rather than the sandstone characteristic of the portal figures, it has been posited that this sculpture, now cut down to bust form, was originally created as a single entire figure for an as yet uncertain location within a church in the region. 22 Perhaps the mystery only adds to her allure, although the most attractive female figure in the Glencairn collection, the “slim princess” or Statue Column of a Queen from Provins (09.SP.103) was apparently never considered for loan, no doubt because of her significance as a Pitcairn family favorite. 23
Nonetheless, the incipient expressive quality and naturalism of the “princess” as a precursor of Gothic art was more than made up for by the quality of the later gothic wood and stone sculpture lent by Mr. Pitcairn, which were placed throughout the later rooms of the museum’s display. Among the many striking juxtapositions of objects was the composition of a “Calvary” group featuring the museum’s figures of Saints Barbara and Catherine, made c. 1515 by the Ulm sculptor Niklaus Weckmann beneath a dramatic life-size late thirteenth or early fourteenth-century French painted wood Crucified Christ lent by Mr. Pitcairn (Figure 17). While a moving arrangement, recognition of the poignancy of the figure and Christ’s sacrifice would originally have come from seeing the work hung on a choir screen or above an altar, where it would have directly been associated with the meaning of the Eucharist celebrated below. 24 However, the placement of the object is so subtle and effective that it has remained in that place until the present day, where the crucifix now participates in a conversation with the museum’s Tomb Effigy of a Recumbent Knight, from the former abbey of Sainte Marie at La Genevraye, Normandy of c. 1230-40, suggesting the growth of secular interest in church projects in the period and the hopes for salvation by members of the aristocracy inherent in such patronage.
Clearly, the presence of Mr. Pitcairn’s loans was overwhelmingly positive for the overall impact of the museum’s new displays, and was also recognized as an achievement on his part as a collector. Francis Henry Taylor acknowledged this considerable significance in a long review article on the galleries:
“Raymond Pitcairn has lent a magnificent series of Romanesque and Gothic sculptures in wood and stone from his private collection, of the most distinguished of America in this field . . . These objects, shown publicly for the first time, include examples of virtually every important school of Romanesque and Gothic sculpture.” 25
Charles Rufus Morey, Chair of Art and Archaeology at Princeton, reviewing the display for the journal Parnassus agreed, stating that: “the Pitcairn loans have revealed to a quite unexpected extent the richness of this collection.” 26 Without question, the loans from Mr. Pitcairn had a transformative effect, but importantly also helped to establish an underlying pattern for future installations at the museum, fortunately satisfied by the eventual purchase of George Grey Barnard’s second collection that followed a similar emphasis on French architectural and figurative wood and stone sculpture from Romanesque to Gothic. In this way, the ideas of display and context so memorably shaped by generous loans could be continued, and then broadened as the museum’s holdings developed over time.
As part of this process, it is critical to acknowledge that while a majority of loans from other lenders were returned within a few short months after the opening of the medieval section, Mr. Pitcairn’s stayed, and even grew in number. While some works were returned—for example a number of the pieces eventually integrated into the fabric of the Great Hall at Glencairn—Mr. Pitcairn made further groups of loans of sculptures, tapestries and furniture late into 1931 and up to 1935. These ranged from a painted wood Enthroned Virgin of the late twelfth-century (Figure 18), to a selection of sixteenth-century tapestries that made a dramatic impression as part of the entry to the panorama of medieval art in the galleries, to a group of early Christian, Spanish and Byzantine carved ivories that nowadays grace Glencairn’s “treasury.” Some forty plus objects remained at the museum on display for decades, and while objects (like the ivories and small devotional sculptures) have been returned over the years for installation at Glencairn Museum, others have stayed and eleven are on view in the galleries. This includes the St. Michel de Cuxa capital, and the Virgin and Child and the Enthroned Virgin discussed above. In addition, Mr. Pitcairn made gifts of certain loans to the permanent collection, such as the stirring Head of Christ in painted wood, a surviving and substantial fragment from a monumental corpus likely made in central France around 1150-1200 27 (Figure 19).
Certainly these Pitcairn objects, whether permanent additions or long-term loans, have gained a special significance for their part in shaping the museum’s displays, and this influence is recognized in the museum’s didactic materials. Yet these arrangements have always been flexible, for example in the fulfillment of loan requests to peer museums for exhibitions (such as the recent important exhibition El románico y el Mediterráneo: Cataluña, Toulouse y Pisa, 1120-1180 at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, in 2008). In earlier times, too, as suggested by a friendly note of 15 April 1931 from Mr. Pitcairn to Taylor requesting a group of seven capitals be returned from the display, objects travelled back to Bryn Athyn for study. 28 In this case, it would seem the sculptures may have been of interest as models for the ongoing building work at Glencairn, and a related note from May of the same year documents Taylor’s best efforts to forestall the return of the Arch with Figures and Fantastic Creatures by sending a measured drawing, rubbing and template, which at least must have helped in the planning of the object’s eventual installation in the Great Hall, if not the creation of the front doorway arch and Upper Hall fireplace, the compositions of which were surely stimulated by this model. 29 In many ways, Mr. Pitcairn’s loans to the museum have conveyed this spirit of inspiration from medieval art, which in conjunction with the historic rooms and architectural elements in the museum, and juxtaposition with broader forms of artistic production in the period, have allowed the visiting public to gain a more complete understanding of the spiritual and devotional purpose surrounding their creation. Even from a purely aesthetic standpoint, it is unquestionable that these loans allowed the museum a more complete presentation of medieval visual arts, and has furthered a rich sense of the creativity of the medieval craftsman. Perhaps one of the most substantial outcomes of Mr. Pitcairn’s generous loans to the museum and the sustained support and cooperation of those who cherish his legacy at Glencairn has been to foster this sense of shared purpose and community in celebrating medieval art and all of its glories with a wide audience. 30 And long may it continue!
Associate Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture
Philadelphia Museum of Art
* I would like to thank Ed Gyllenhaal, Curator, and Brian Henderson, Director of Glencairn Museum for both the opportunity to write this short study, and for their extremely warm and generous cooperation with me, and with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, over the years. I am also indebted to Susan Anderson, Museum Archivist, for her gracious assistance with source materials. Finally, I am grateful to my wife, Nancy Sophy and our sons Luka and Theo for their patience and support, as always.
1 On the walk through time see: David B. Brownlee, Making a Modern Classic: The Architecture of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art), 1997.
2 Fiske Kimball, “The Display Collection of the Middle Ages,” Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum, (April, 1931), p. 3.
3 Kimball, loc. cit.
4 Philadelphia Museum of Art, accession number 1928-57-1a. The portal was purchased from the Parisian dealer Paul Gouvert. See: Walter Cahn ed., Romanesque Sculpture in American Collections, II: New York and New Jersey, Middle and South Atlantic States, the Midwest, Western and Pacific States, (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols), 1999, no. 3, pp. 17-20.
5 See: Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives [PMAA], Medieval Department Papers [MED], Francis Henry Taylor correspondence.
6 Kimball, op. cit., p. 3.
7 See: Jack Hinton, Ken Sutherland and Peggy Olley, “Kimball, Figdor and the Medici: Notes on the Collection and Display of Italian Renaissance furniture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” Furniture History, 45, (2009): pp. 1-34.
8 Fiske Kimball, “The Modern Museum of Art,” Architectural Record, vol. 66 (December, 1929), p. 574.
9 For further examples and discussion, see: Elizabeth Bradford Smith ed., Medieval Art in America: Patterns of Collecting, 1800-1940, exhibition catalogue, Palmer Museum of Art, (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University), 1996; and Virginia Brilliant ed., Gothic Art in the Gilded Age: Medieval and Renaissance Treasures in the Gavet – Vanderbilt – Ringling Collection, exh. cat., (Sarasota: John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art), 2009.
10 E. Bruce Glenn, Glencairn: The Story of a Home, (Bryn Athyn: Academy of the New Church), 1990, p. 162.
11 Renee Burnam, Stained Glass before 1700 in the Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, (London / Turnhout: Harvey Miller), 2012, nos 2-4, pp. 82-95; Francis Henry Taylor, “The Study Collections of Wood-Carving,” Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum, vol. 24, no. 127, (April 1929), pp. 7-15.
12 Bradford Smith, op. cit., p. 186.
13 Patrick M. De Winter, The Sacral Treasure of the Guelphs, (Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art with Indiana University Press), 1985, pp. 133-7.
14 PMAA, MED, Box 1, Francis Henry Taylor correspondence A–Pe 1927-28, Taylor to Pitcairn, Nov. 16, 1927.
15 PMAA, Fiske Kimball Records [FKR], Box 186, folder 5, Taylor to Pitcairn, Jan. 15, 1931.
16 “Accessions and Loans to the Museum February 1, 1930 to June 1, 1930.” Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum, vol. 25, no. 135, 1930, pp. 31–38; Susan Ward and Joan Holladay eds, Gothic Sculpture in America, III: The Museums of New York and Pennsylvania, (Turnhout: Brepols), 2016, no. 178, pp. 286-9 and no. 250, pp. 361-2.
17 Francis Henry Taylor, “The Art of the Middle Ages,” The Arts, vol. 17 (April, 1931), pp. 455-90 (472).
18 PMA accession numbers 1923-22-1, -2; 1943-40-106, 107; 1929-101-1; see Cahn, op. cit. no. 26, pp. 39-40 and no. 12, pp. 28-9; the half columns were given to the museum by Georges Demotte, a French dealer from whom Mr. Pitcairn made numerous acquisitions.
19 “Handbook of the Display Collection of the Art of the Middle Ages,” Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum, vol. 26, no. 140, (March, 1931), p. 23.
21 Ward and Holladay, op. cit., no. 384, p. 560-2.
22 Ward and Holladay, op. cit., no. 207, p. 317.
23 Taylor wrote to Pitcairn in May 1931 to request a photograph of the sculpture for Marcel Aubert, curator of medieval art at the Louvre, so that he might include it in his book on French gothic art. PMAA, FKR, Box 186, f. 5, Taylor to Pitcarn, May 1, 1931.
24 Ward and Holladay, no. 386, pp. 563-4.
25 Taylor, op. cit., p. 460.
26 Charles R. Morey, “The New Medieval Wing of the Pennsylvania Museum,” Parnassus, vol. 3 no. 3 (March 1931), pp. 3-5.
27 Cahn, no. 2, p. 17; PMA accession number 1965-216-2.
28 PMAA, FKR, Box 186, f. 5, Pitcairn to Taylor, Apr. 15, 1931. Among the returning capitals were a Roussillon capital with winged beasts on their hind legs (09.SP.170) and two limestone capitals with griffins (09.SP.102 / 09.SP.260) that conceivably inspired the capitals around the tower roof.
29 Glenn, op. cit., p. 17, pp. 96-102; PMAA, FKR, Box 186, f.5, Taylor to Pitcairn, May 26, 1931.
30 The story of this most generous arrangement also runs a little contrary to Philippe de Montebello’s statement that “only a small sampling from Bryn Athyn has been seen by the general public, through loans to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1931” in the foreword to Jane Hayward and Walter Cahn eds., Radiance and Reflection: Medieval Art from the Raymond Pitcairn Collection, exh. cat., (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), 1982, p. 5.
A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.