Glencairn Museum News | Number 5, 2012
Visitors to Glencairn often stop to admire the granite relief sculpture that decorates the monumental fireplace in the Upper Hall. The relief, which depicts the days of creation as described in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, was designed and carved in the 1930s by craftsmen from Raymond Pitcairn’s Bryn Athyn Studios. Nine pieces of granite were cut from the Bryn Athyn quarry and fitted together to form the arch.
The narrative begins at the bottom of the relief, with images that seem to echo the very first verse in the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The clouds of the heavens have been carved in a continuous band along the inside of the arch, with two blocks below depicting the land (mountains and plants, left) and the sea (water and fish, right).
The days of creation are depicted in an alternating series of seven blocks, beginning at the bottom right and moving up toward the top of the arch. Day one is the separation of light from darkness; day two is the separation of sea from sky; day three is the separation of the dry ground from the sea and the creation of plants; day four is the creation of the sun, moon and stars; day five is the creation of water and sky animals (represented by an alligator and a bird-of-paradise); and day six is the creation of land animals (represented by elephants).
In the biblical narrative God also creates man and woman on the sixth day, and then He rests on the seventh. In the Glencairn relief a man and woman are the central focus of the composition; they are shown at the top center of the arch, kneeling beneath a fruit-bearing tree in the Garden of Eden.
The designer and carver of this fireplace arch have not yet been identified. Felice Sabatino, originally from Castelfranci, Italy, was probably involved in the creation of a preliminary plaster model of the relief, which is now lost. Sabatino was in charge of the modeling shop during the construction of Glencairn. He had been the principal modeler during the construction of Bryn Athyn Cathedral as well, where the use of models had been an integral part of the design process. (An article about modeling at the Cathedral and Glencairn can be accessed here.) The main stone carvers who worked on sculptures at Glencairn were Robert M. Collie, Attilio Marchiori, Pietro Menghi, Felice Sabatino, and Benjamin A. Tweedale. All of these men, with the possible exception of Collie, had worked together previously on the Cathedral project.
The collaborative nature of the design and modeling process, which had been perfected at Bryn Athyn Cathedral long before construction began at Glencairn (built from 1928-1939), is apparent in a letter written by Raymond Pitcairn to Sabatino: “I should like to have you make models for grape leaf design for the remaining chancel column capitals. They should follow quite closely those which you have already carved. When you have worked out the models carefully, I would get the criticism of Meng[hi] and Tweedale and the other fellows, and then proceed to carve these capitals. . . .” (Raymond Pitcairn to Felice Sabatino. October 23, 1922).
Photos of each of the nine granite blocks in the “Days of Creation” fireplace arch can be seen by clicking on any of the images above. Admission to the first floor of Glencairn is free Saturdays from 1 to 4:30 pm (donations are welcome). The fireplace can also be seen during guided tours on weekdays at 2:30, or by appointment.
A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.