Glencairn Museum News | Number 10, 2012
The large lancet window featuring an “Angel with Censer,” located in the center of the north wall of the Great Hall, is one of the most memorable works of religious art in Glencairn. Recently this angel became the subject of a religious icon, in a workshop taught at the Museum by iconographer Susan Kelly vonMedicus (see photo). Few people, however, know the fascinating story of how the Angel with Censer and five other windows—originally created for Chartres Cathedral in France—came to be reproduced for the castle-like home of Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania.
Of the nine lancet windows in the Great Hall, six are based on medieval originals in Chartres Cathedral (in the town of Chartres, some 60 miles southwest of Paris). These windows were reproduced in the 1930s by the Bryn Athyn glass studio and factory. Author E. Bruce Glenn, a nephew of the Pitcairns, described why these windows were important to Raymond Pitcairn:
“These six windows must have helped determine the height and proportions of the great hall. Twenty-two feet high, they are full-scale replicas of windows in Chartres Cathedral, acknowledged as the most beautiful repository of stained glass in the world. Raymond Pitcairn loved them for their beauty and representational power; and concerned over the possible destruction of the originals through the ravages of time and war, he undertook the challenge of placing in Glencairn reproductions faithful in color, size, and feeling to the great medieval originals” (Glencairn: The Story of a Home, p. 130).
Pitcairn went to great lengths to reproduce the Chartres windows, achieving a remarkable degree of accuracy. Full-scale tracings were available for five of the windows, carefully drawn in black ink, with the color indicated for each piece of pot metal glass. (See photo.) These drawings had been made in 1886 by Albert Bonnot during a restoration of the lancet windows, located beneath the north rose window at Chartres. Pitcairn purchased the original drawings from Michel Acezat, a Paris-based stained glass restorer and art dealer, and used them as the basis for the Glencairn reproductions. (The Bonnot drawings are now in the collection of Glencairn Museum.)
The “Angel with Censer” window, unlike the other five lancet windows, comes from the choir clerestory at Chartres, and no tracing of it was available for Raymond Pitcairn to purchase. According to E. Bruce Glenn, Pitcairn was able to solve this problem in 1932 by securing permission from the administrators at Chartres “to have scaffolding erected on the exterior at Chartres and a rubbing made of the window.” Pitcairn had been corresponding with Chartres since the early 20s, requesting and purchasing photographic materials to aid his stained glass artists in their work. He also sent several of his artists to Chartres Cathedral during the 20s, including Albert E. Cullen, an English artist who was hired to produce drawings and paintings of stained glass details “showing heads, drapery of particular interest, hands, feet, scratched out ornaments, foliage, etc.” (Raymond Pitcairn. Letter to Albert E. Cullen. 13 March 1924. Glencairn Museum Archives, Bryn Athyn, Pa.).
Such an undertaking did not always go smoothly. As Cullen recalled many years later, “I dropped a bottle of ink on top of a confessional box while [the] priest and confessor was inside.” According to Cullen, this “created quite a furore,” but the administrator at Chartres, Canon Yves Delaporte, “was pretty nice about it and seemed highly amused” (Letter to Jennie Gaskill, August 30, 1971).
In one respect, however, the Angel with Censer window at Glencairn is not an exact copy of the original window at Chartres. At Chartres the angel window is actually one of a pair of angels, one positioned on either side of a window depicting the Virgin Mary and Child. The angels are shown holding censers to burn incense before Mary, a composition intended to glorify the Virgin as the mother of Jesus. The Angel with Censer is placed above a smaller depiction of Aaron, a priest from the Old Testament; a photograph exists (see photo) from the 1930s of a small watercolor painting of this window in the Bryn Athyn glass studio. The final Glencairn version executed in stained glass, however, places the angel above a depiction of John, the author of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation.
Why was the image of Aaron the priest exchanged for one of John the Evangelist at Glencairn? As a member of the New Church, Raymond Pitcairn was very familiar with one of Emanuel Swedenborg’s works, Apocalypse Revealed (1766), in which the theologian explains the inner meaning of the Book of Revelation—perhaps the most enigmatic book in the Bible. It seems likely that by replacing Aaron with John, Pitcairn was reinterpreting the Chartres angel as one of the angels described in the Book of Revelation:
“Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer [it] with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne” (Rev. 8:3).
By reinterpreting the Angel with Censer (glorifying the Virgin Mary) as an angel from the Book of Revelation, Pitcairn was able to maintain the aesthetic appeal of the original Chartres window while at the same time representing his own theological perspective in the Great Hall of Glencairn, his family’s new home.
Similarly, Pitcairn reinterpreted the subject of the central lancet window in the west wall of the Great Hall. In the original version, from the central lancet beneath the north rose window at Chartres, the image of mother and child represents Saint Anne holding the infant Mary. The Glencairn version, on the other hand, depicts Mary holding the infant Jesus.
Admission to the Great Hall of Glencairn is free Saturdays from 1 to 4:30 p.m. (donations are welcome). The Great Hall can also be seen during guided tours on Saturdays or weekdays; reservations are recommended.
A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.
(Updated on 11-7-12)