Bryn Athyn Cathedral: The Building of a Church

E. Bruce Glenn

The Choir Hall and Michael Tower

The north building of the Cathedral is known simply as the Choir Hall, though in addition to this use it also contains rooms for preparing worship and, on the ground floor of the north tower, a book room with literature on the New Church and its teachings. Beyond this the building terminates in a porte-cochere.

The last part of the Cathedral to be erected (it was dedicated in 1928), the Choir Hall is the simplest in style and detail. The absence of tracery and pinnacles mark it as Romanesque, in balance with the Council Hall on the south side of the church; while the comparative plainness of its facade is softened and varied by the blending of many different types of granite brought to Bryn Athyn from quarries throughout the northeastern United States. This variety has been noted specifically in an earlier chapter on the stone work.

The north transept of the church leads directly, beneath the organ loft, into the choir hall itself. This room, the lines of which are broken at the south end by a balcony supported by a massive oaken beam and at the opposite end by two round-arched doors to the tower room, expresses an almost monastic simplicity. Its white plastered walls are pierced by lancets, and on the west side by round windows opening to the cloister arcade. There is no stained glass, no ornament; yet any sensation of barrenness is removed by the proportions and particularly the concave refinement in the walls, seen in contrast to the lines of the floor, that brings the room to life. The sense is one of strength in repose, not of emptiness. It would have made a worthy refectory in the eleventh century. Actually it serves well for choir rehearsals, lectures and small concerts, and for wedding receptions in seasons when the lawns about the Cathedral cannot be used. Perhaps its best use is that of bringing the approaching worshipper into the sphere of quiet serenity that prepares the mind to enter the church beyond.

At its north end the book room forms the base of the Michael Tower. The name is derived from the fact that its windows depict scenes from the Book of Revelation, in which the archangel Michael, symbol of the church militant, conquers the dragon of falsity and thus protects the purity of doctrine represented by the manchild born of the mother church, the woman clothed with the sun. Of these symbols the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church have much to say, since this mystic prophecy given to John on Patmos foretells the New Christianity that will accompany the second coming following the great judgment. High on the east wall of the tower room, beneath the stone vaulted ceiling, a hexagon window pictures Michael in the act of slaying the dragon. The lancet window on the north wall presents in three medallions further scenes from Revelation: John's vision of the heavenly throne with the Lamb and the four beasts worshipping; the White Horse and its Rider, the woman clothed with the sun, and the red dragon; and the pale horse and souls bound under the altar.

Further symbolism from the same prophecy is found outside the tower, in the entrance on the east side. Here a double-leaf door of hammered copper is studded with bosses inlaid with sterling silver. The handles of monel are among many outstanding examples of handwrought hardware throughout the Cathedral—hinges and latches, the great variety of keys which are the motif of the endpapers in this book, and handles which frequently take form as representational birds and animals. On either side of the tower door, granite capitals depict the four beasts of the Apocalypse. The lintel stone is noteworthy for its beauty as an example of Bryn Athyn granite from the creek valley, as is also the stone forming the base of the double arch in the adjoining porte-cochere, looking out on the north lawn.

The west facade of the Choir Hall is graced by a cloister arcade which faces the wooded hills beyond the valley. This forms one side of an intended quadrangle that was to extend west and thence south to meet the west end of the church. That this was not completed is perhaps compensated by the open view from cloister and lawn that excels in loveliness at any season.

Between the arches of the cloister, on buttressed pedestals, stand the only carvings of full-scale human figures at Bryn Athyn. The completed quadrangle was to represent thus the Twelve Tribes of Israel which were sealed as the servants of God in the seventh chapter of Revelation. The four which stand upon the cloister are Judah, Reuben, Gad, and Asher, each with his appropriate symbol. Above them, in the Greek of the New Testament, are inscribed the concluding words of the song of rejoicing which the multitude sang when the hundred and forty-four thousand had been sealed: "And wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever, Amen" (Rev. 7:12).

As our approach to the Cathedral began with the inscription, from Revelation which declares around the tower cornice the eternal kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, so we may fittingly close with this hymn of gratitude for His salvation given to everyone who serves His ends. When compared to the glory of His creation, the works of men are little and never perfect. The Cathedral at Bryn Athyn is in a sense uncompleted. Many of its capitals remain as yet uncarved; windows are being set in place now, a permanent west door of glass and monel has still to be fashioned. Built in this quiet place during the stress of world conflict, the church fifty years later faces far greater uncertainty and social chaos. Yet it stands, like those whose faith it embodies, in confidence not of man's instilling. The shops and studios are nearly all removed, and all but a few artisans have gone. The continuity of endeavor remains; under the guidance of Raymond Pitcairn's son Lachlan, the church has been given a setting fit for its beauty. Lawns and terraces, trees that stood when the ground was first broken and stone benches lately set, all subscribe to the worth of what has been done in the building of this church, and the continuing dedication of men's work to Him whose house it is.

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