A Nativity Inspired by Bryn Athyn Architecture

Glencairn Museum News | Number 11, 2015

The Glencairn Nativity for the New Century by Navidad Nativities. Photograph by Rosemary Carroll.


Figure 1: The Christ Child, Mary, and one of the Wise Men in The Glencairn Nativity.


Visitors to Glencairn may experience déjà vu when they see The Glencairn Nativity for the New Century, now on exhibit in Glencairn’s Upper Hall. This unusual Nativity was created especially for this year’s World Nativities exhibition by Navidad Nativities of Bucks County, PA (www.navidadnativities.com). The Glencairn Nativity honors the architectural legacy of Raymond Pitcairn, who supervised the design and construction of both Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn. By envisioning the birth of the Christ Child within a contemporary American setting, this Bryn Athyn-inspired Nativity also pays tribute to several European Nativity-making traditions, such as the Neapolitan presepio in Italy and the santons of southern France. These traditions seek to evoke for the viewer the essence of the Nativity miracle—that God came down to earth where people actually lived, worked, and worshiped.

Glencairn’s own Nativity tradition dates to the 1920s, when Raymond Pitcairn commissioned artist Winfred Hyatt to create a large three-part Nativity for Cairnwood, his Bryn Athyn home. The Pitcairn Nativity has been displayed annually in Glencairn’s Upper Hall since the building was completed in 1939. In the 1950s the Pitcairns commissioned a similar three-part Nativity for the Eisenhower family, which was placed beside the Christmas tree in the East Room of the White House. This year the scenes in the Pitcairn Nativity have been given new life with professionally designed, dramatic interior lighting.


Figure 2: Mildred Pitcairn at Glencairn with her grandchildren in 1967, in front of the Nativity made for the Pitcairn family in the 1920s by Winfred S. Hyatt.


The architectural setting for The Glencairn Nativity for the New Century was made by artisans Michael Stumpf and A.J. DiAntonio at Navidad Nativities' Bucks County atelier. The setting was made from wood, stone and other natural materials. Drawing from their favorite elements in each of the buildings, the Navidad artisans developed a design that represents their own interpretation of the historical and architectural relationship between Glencairn and Bryn Athyn Cathedral.


Figure 3: The Glencairn Nativity in an early stage of development in the atelier of Navidad Nativities, Bucks County, PA.


Michael Stumpf and his wife Shurley visited Glencairn for the first time in 2014 to see the World Nativities exhibition. Stumpf and DiAntonio then toured Glencairn and Bryn Athyn Cathedral with Glencairn’s director and curator in the spring of 2015. They became interested in the story of how Raymond Pitcairn oversaw the design and construction of Bryn Athyn’s Gothic- and Romanesque-style Cathedral, dedicated in 1919, and his Glencairn home, built in the Romanesque style between 1928 and 1939. Pitcairn’s artistic vision and attention to detail inspired the Navidad artisans to create this tribute in miniature.


Figure 4: The Glencairn Nativity under construction. Columns and capitals from Glencairn’s Cloister can be seen on the left.


According to Stumpf, “we spent hours photographing both Glencairn and the Cathedral last spring. From those images, we began to discuss the best presentation for bringing both amazing buildings into the Nativity architecturally. The concept for the design is the central nave and sanctuary of the Cathedral, embraced on both sides by architectural elements of Glencairn. On the right, the massive arches of the living room and some dining room details. On the left, the beautiful cloistered garden attached to the mansion. The presentation concept is much like a set design for a play or movie, with interpretive elements as an artist would do.”


Figure 5: The Glencairn Nativity under construction, photographed in the garden outside the Bucks Country atelier of Navidad Nativities.


Figure 6: Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn posing for their Christmas card in 1954. On the wall behind them is a Nativity painting adapted from Maud and Miska Petersham’s book, The Christ Child. The painting and fireplace arch have been reproduced within the setting of The Glencairn Nativity.


Those familiar with both buildings will be rewarded by looking carefully at some of the smaller features within the setting. According to Stumpf, “the purple light in the sanctuary duplicates the light in the real Cathedral produced by a combination of red and blue glass in the windows and the light outside beaming through. Typically our Nativities are full of details . . . it’s one of the things people love. They will sit and stare and find little surprises and details at length.”


Figure 7: The Glencairn Nativity. Photo: Rosemary Carroll.


Earlier this year Stumpf and DiAntonio spent ten days in Germany and Italy doing research and meeting with other Nativity artisans. They met with a curator at the Bavarian National Museum in Munich, Germany, which houses one of the largest collections of Nativities in Europe. They also visited master woodcarver Daniel Perathoner at Ulrich Perathoner, a family business located in the Italian Alps. Stumpf and DiAntonio also traveled to Naples and met with the Ferrigno family, a fourth-generation family of woodcarvers with several shops on Via San Gregorio Armeno, a street known around the world by collectors of Nativities. (Glencairn Museum owns a presepio, or Nativity scene, made by Guiseppe Ferrigno.)


Figure 8: The human and animal figures in The Glencairn Nativity are from Original Heide’s Immanuel Collection. Original Heide is a family-owned workshop in the Italian Alps.


It was during their trip that Stumpf and DiAntonio found the Renaissance-style Nativity figures for The Glencairn Nativity at Original Heide, a family-owned workshop in the Italian Alps. The figures belong to Original Heide’s Immanuel Collection. According to Stumpf, “The figures are exceptional, created by a family of sculptors and artisans in the Dolomites, the Italian Alps, in an area known as Val Gardena, near the town of Ortisei. The wonderfully gestured Nativity figures are crafted with carved wood faces, hands and feet, draped in authentic fabrics stiffened with starches, and meticulously hand painted and detailed. The patriarch of the family, a 67 year old sculptor, is Heinrich Demetz. A.J. and I had the absolutely awesome experience of spending several hours with Heinrich while in Italy.”


Figure 9: Michael Stumpf (left) and A.J. DiAntonio pose with The Glencairn Nativity at an exhibition preview on November 23, 2015. Photo: Kyle Genzlinger.


Both Stumpf and DiAntonio have been fascinated with Nativities since they were young children. According to Stumpf, when he was growing up, “our Nativity had a place of honor under the tree. It came from F.W. Woolworths. It was printed cardboard, with plaster figures. As a child, I would change the color of the light bulb in the manger to create different effects. And I would love to go to Woolworths to see the rows of figures lined up and see what was new each year.” Many years later, as an adult, “the family cardboard stable bit the dust finally. So with my daughter Jennifer, we put together a very rough version made out of balsa wood from Herb’s Hobby Shop for the Woolworths plaster figures from my childhood. Soon thereafter, I did a larger version we had on display in our entryway in our old Victorian home on Harvey Avenue. Friends and neighbors loved it, and I started building on request.”


Figure 10: A.J. DiAntonio has been building Nativity scenes since he was about five years old. In this photo he is working on the design for The Glencairn Nativity in the Bucks County atelier of Navidad Nativities.


DiAntonio started building his own Nativities when he was about five years old, working with his grandfather. “The first one I remember building was for a set of plastic figures from Woolworths based on Italian molds. The stable was simple pine boards nailed together with a peak.” As an adult, his favorite part of creating a Nativity scene is “the first ‘a-ha moment’ where you know it’s working, and you see something coming together. Then refining that.”


Figure 11: A.J. DiAntonio (far left) and Michael Stumpf witness the unveiling of The Glencairn Nativity at an exhibition preview on November 23, 2015. Photo: Kyle Genzlinger.


The Glencairn Nativity can be seen daily through January 10 as part of Glencairn’s World Nativities exhibition. (Closed December 14-15, 24-25.) Navidad Nativities creates Nativity settings and offers several lines of figures created by European artisans (www.navidadnativities.com).

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