Bryn Athyn Cathedral: The Building of a Church

E. Bruce Glenn

The Council Hall and Ezekiel Tower

"DURING THE SIX YEARS thus far devoted to the building of Bryn Athyn Church, the appeal of twelfth and thirteenth century Gothic and the earlier architecture from which this was derived has become increasingly powerful."

This appeal, as noted above by Raymond Pitcairn in 1920, was that of fundamental simplicity and the avoidance of mere form. The earlier churches of medieval Christianity expressed an unquestioning faith, an assurance that the truths of scripture which were there clothed in stone and glass needed no exterior blandishments to seize the eye and mind. Simple, strong, monumental—these are the terms that characterize the early Gothic, as compared with the decorative encrusting of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And to this earlier feeling the builders at Bryn Athyn turned as the design and details of the church took form. So the windows, as we have seen, partake of the solemn dignity, the contemplative power of religious truth rather than the tender charm that individualizes later medieval and renaissance portrayals of biblical figures in glass.

In keeping with these principles, the south group—built between 1920 and 1926 and comprising the Ezekiel Tower and Council Hall—returns in spirit to the transitional period of Christian architecture, when out of the Romanesque, with its firm walls and settled lines, the lively grace of the Gothic developed. The traits of Romanesque were the rounded arch, smaller windows than the Gothic, heavier walls, and doors "stepped" in from the walls through a series of mouldings and columns that were frequently carved with geometric patterns, again in contrast with the forms from nature that characterized Gothic adornment.

This triad of lancet windows stands at the west end of the undercroft, on the ground floor of the Council Hall. The cleanness of the granite is enhanced by the delicate Romanesque carvings on the small dividing columns.

This triad of lancet windows stands at the west end of the undercroft, on the ground floor of the Council Hall. The cleanness of the granite is enhanced by the delicate Romanesque carvings on the small dividing columns. Click on image for a larger version.

Historically the development was from the simple to the complex, as church architects experimented with higher, lighter walls, larger windows, pointed arch, vaulted roof, and flying buttress. The reversal of this direction in the design of additional buildings for Bryn Athyn—the south and north groups—proves fitting and fortunate. Simpler in style and smaller than the main church, they serve it as handmaids while retaining an individual beauty. So too, the ecclesiastical uses performed within their walls are ancillary to the essential use of worship.

The Council Hall and Ezekiel Tower are united by a common style and type of stone, unity subtly emphasized by the fact that the slant of the Council Hall roof follows exactly that of the tower. Together they are linked to the church by the pastor's vestry lying east of the chapel. The strength of these buildings is softened almost wholly by their exquisite proportions and the warmth of the stone. There are no pinnacles, no tracery or mouldings in the softer limestone used for the church. The stone used throughout this group is a rich granite quarried near Plymouth, Massachusetts, except for the roof of the Council Hall, which is of blue Vermont slate. The gabled tower roof, especially notable, is of seam-face granite slabs, grooved and fitted to one another.

Side by side stand two windows for the council chamber; but one is of stone, the other of plaster …the latter 'finished' in more detail. The windows when finally set in the south wall of the Council Hall, standing between massive buttresses, give a pleasing grace.

Side by side stand two windows for the council chamber; but one is of stone, the other of plaster . . . the latter "finished" in more detail. The windows when finally set in the south wall of the Council Hall, standing between massive buttresses, give a pleasing grace. Click on image for a larger version.

The uses of the Council Hall are, as the name implies, centered in the gathering of the church's priests to develop understanding of doctrine and consider its application to the uses of the church. The Council of the Clergy of the General Church of the New Jerusalem meets annually here from over the world. Here too the Bryn Athyn pastor and his assistants meet with laymen of the community to discuss mutual concerns. Thus do the men of the church communicate, that they might more truly commune with the Lord and do His service.

In keeping with this use, the symbolism in the Council Hall extends beyond the Scriptural representations to which the church itself as a house of worship is restricted. The carved granite cornice around the outside of the council chamber is accented by a series of human heads representing racial types from throughout the world. This suggests the universality of the Lord's kingdom, in which His mercy reaches to all who live in the sincerity of mutual love. It represents also that the New Church is to be without national boundaries; the new gospel of the Second Coming is to be preached to all races and tongues.

Side by side on the south wall of the Council Hall, near its eastern end, are the carved seals of the General Church and the Academy of the New Church. The General Church seal is a simple depiction of the seven candlesticks and seven stars noted in Revelation 1:13, 16, of which the chapter later declares, "The seven stars are the angels of the seven Churches, and the seven candlesticks are the seven Churches." In The Apocalypse Revealed, one of the works in which the Scripture is unfolded through Swedenborg, these are said to represent the New Church in heaven and on the earth. Also from the Book of Revelation is the legend below the candlesticks in Greek: "Behold I make all things new," in promise of the New Church and of the opportunity for regeneration which is held out to every man through the Word. This seal is also represented on the bronze tympanum above the south entrance to the church.

The seal of the Academy, recognized as the educational arm of the General Church, is more elaborate; and its symbols represent the complex uses of education, both direct and indirect. The crest is a lion couchant representing the Lord in His Divine Human, the Lion of the tribe of Judah who prevailed to open the book sealed with seven seals (Rev. 5:5), through the power of His truth. The crown on the lion's head symbolizes the Lord's government, and the key beneath its paw the opening of the internal sense of the Word.

The shield beneath this crest is quartered with the following symbols: the mitre of Aaron representing the priesthood and its educational leadership; an eagle brooding over her young in the nest, as the nurturing use of education; the open temple seen by Swedenborg in heaven with its inscription, "Nunc Licet," by which is meant that now it is permitted to enter intellectually into the mysteries of faith (True Christian Religion 508); and Michael slaying the dragon of the Apocalypse, representing the church militant and the destruction of falsity by the truth of Divine revelation. These four quarters have come traditionally to symbolize the four schools of the Academy, as listed above: the Theological School, the Girls School, the College, and the Boys School.

We may note in passing that among the cathedral's refinements is the battering of this south wall, i.e., a backward sloping from the base, and also a gentle convex curve. Together with the heavy buttresses, they lend strength and the impression of greater size. Also to be noted are the graceful variations on the motif of the Roman arch in the grilles of monel at the base of the wall.

Entrance to the Council Hall at ground level is through two large doors at the east end, leading to the undercroft below the council chamber. The doors of warm teak fill round arches separated by a solid column of granite. This strongly Romanesque feature is repeated by round arches around the walls of the undercroft, each arch containing three pointed windows of clear glass above a stone seat set into the wall. Columns dividing the windows are carved in varying patterns also characteristically Romanesque as are the columns framing the lancets of the council chamber above. The stone floor is of a pattern from an oriental rug in Raymond Pitcairn's home, and is strikingly accented by the use of black stone against the warm granite tones. The charm of this beautifully proportioned room finds particular focus in the stair, set in the west wall, that leads to the council chamber above. The broad lines of the steps and the deep-set windows of the stair wall within the arch are set off by an exquisite railing of monel.

The oak door at the top of this stair is covered with a single sheet of hand-beaten copper. To its right is the entrance to the council chamber, a steeply-gabled room with hammerbeam ceiling of oak and floor of teak. The walls of the council chamber are decorated with wide capitals carved in varying patterns of leaf and flower. The rough finish above them was to be covered with panels of glass mosaic. Meanwhile the primitive simplicity of the finish is not incongruous with the style and atmosphere of the room as a whole.

The corbels supporting the roof trusses depict historical personages of the New Church, the only instance of this in the cathedral at Bryn Athyn. The heads of six men who played leading roles in the history of the church, and particularly the General Church, look down upon its councils. On the north wall, west to east:

Robert Hindmarsh (1759–1835) organized in England the first society of worshippers in the faith of the doctrines given through Swedenborg.
John Pitcairn (1841–1916) was a founder of the Academy of the New Church, and benefactor and supporter of the General Church.
Walter C. Childs (1845–1934), also a founder of the Academy, was a leading proponent of distinctive family and community life in the church.

On the south wall, west to east:

Richard de Charms, Sr. (1796–1863) was a pioneer in the application of doctrine to the development of New Church schools in America.
William H. Benade (1816–1905) was a strong educational leader and the first chancellor of the Academy of the New Church.
William F. Pendleton (1845–1927) was the organizer of the government and ritual of the General Church, and its first episcopal leader.

Set in the east wall of the council chamber, above the repository in which the Word rests for use in the opening of councils, a triple lancet window pictures in stained glass Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), the Lord's chosen servant to reveal His second coming to the rational mind, together with figures symbolic of the sciences by which he was prepared for this use. Swedenborg stands in the central light, and below him a table on which is opened a book of the Heavenly Doctrine. The north light represents physics, cosmology, and philosophy, disciplines embracing the world of inanimate creation. In the south light are depicted anatomy, psychology, and theology, studies of the organic realm which lead to the vision of God in His works and purposes. Through these studies Swedenborg rose to eminence as scientist and philosopher, only to leave them behind as essential steps to his mission as revelator and acknowledged servant of the Lord.

The rose window in the west wall opposite, notable for unusual tones of blue, shows the Rider on the White Horse from the Apocalypse, which represents spiritual understanding of the Word.

The lamps hanging from the ceiling of the council chamber deserve note for a representational character which, though not obvious, links the Council Hall to the Ezekiel Tower standing beside it. Formed as graduated metal rings, each set with numerous lights of unusual oval shape, their lack of ornamentation suits the room well. Beyond this, they stand as a free representation of Ezekiel's vision, reported in the tenth chapter of his prophecy: "And when I looked, behold the four wheels by the cherubim . . . as if a wheel had been in the midst of a wheel . . . and the wheels were full of eyes round about" (Ezek. 10:9, 10, 12). To consider this mystical symbolism and its meaning, we turn to the tower itself.

The way to the church proper from the Council Hall leads through the tower room beneath the belfry. The beauty of this room is worth a pause. Floored in a stone pattern suggesting Aaron's mitre, its east and west walls are set with rose windows above triads of windows combining the Romanesque and Gothic arch. As with the council chamber, the upper walls and vaulted ceiling are unfinished while waiting for mosaic decoration. On the capitals of the four corner window columns is to be found some of the finest symbolic carving in the cathedral. Here, within easy reach of eye and hand, are the four cherubim seen by Ezekiel (Chapter 1), with the faces of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. This symbolism revealed through Swedenborg is of good and truth, which united sustain the life of man and of the church, on the celestial, spiritual, and natural planes.

The general design and proportions of the Ezekiel Tower were inspired by photographs of a Romanesque tower in a book of French ecclesiastical pictures. The use of symbols from the Book of Ezekiel was proposed by Nathaniel Dandridge Pendleton, who had succeeded his brother as Executive Bishop of the General Church. The symbols, described below together with something of their meaning for the church, are derived from chapters 1, 10, and 41 of the Prophet. Perhaps a guiding concept of this choice was the detailed vision of the temple given in the latter part of Ezekiel, with rooms, gates, posts, and windows suggestive of the tower before us, and which is representative of the restoral of spiritual religion following the judgments uttered earlier in the prophecy.

The exterior facade is most easily viewed from the west side, on the upper terrace leading to the south door of the church. Framed by heavy corner buttresses, the tower retains a remarkable unity, from the deeply stepped arches that afford an open passage at the base to its massively crested gable. Above the arch, the tower room noted earlier is marked outside by a Romanesque arch, within which the wall is pierced by three lancet windows surmounted by a great wheel, the latter filled with stained glass. This wheel establishes in large the symbolic theme of Ezekiel's prophecy continued in detailed carvings further up the facade. The unglazed belfry arches, separated by slender columns below quartrefoil tracery, have as a frieze at their base the alternating cherubs and palm trees described as adorning the temple of the prophet's vision (Chapter 41). The cherubs had two faces, one of a man, the other a lion, facing the palm trees on either side. This is said in the Heavenly Doctrine to signify the governing power of Divine Providence from the truth of the Word, the face like a lion specifically denoting the power of truth from good.

A similar frieze, framed in arches, runs around the tower below the cornice. This presents alternating wheels and grouped wings, with the four faces of the cherubs, already noted in the tower room, in repetitive course. Of the wings Swedenborg wrote that they represent the conjunction of celestial and spiritual things with natural, thus the harmonious joining of all the planes of life. The wheels seen by Ezekiel (Chapters 1, 10) signify the truths of doctrine, and also the Divine intelligence giving the power and direction in providence to act according to these truths.

As the visions of Ezekiel are both compelling and difficult in their isolation from natural context, so these abstract truths of doctrine given for the New Christianity challenge the mind to bring them to bear upon daily experience. Perhaps the Ezekiel Tower, sharp and strong in its thrusting outline, yet filled with delicate detail and variety, stands itself as symbol of the challenge and the promise it implies for those who seek.

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