Painting with Light: The Revival of Medieval Glassmaking in Bryn Athyn (2009)

exhibitmar09.jpgGlencairn Museum’s new exhibition, “Painting with Light: The Revival of Medieval Glassmaking in Bryn Athyn” (open through July 25th, 2009) is organized into the following sections: “Tracing and Design,” “Finding the Color,” ”Glassblowing,” “Painting and Assembly,” and “The King Window.” The exhibition features a number of original windows, as well as glassmaking tools and equipment, including a glassblowing bench used in the Bryn Athyn glass factory (which closed in 1942 due to World War Two). 

hyattmar09.jpgThe rich colors and exquisite composition of the stained glass windows made for Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn, beginning in the 1920s, have been inspiring worshipers and visitors for decades. “Painting with Light” tells the story of the artists and craftsmen who set out to recreate the splendor of the stained glass made for Gothic cathedrals by reviving the lost techniques of the medieval glassmakers. The goal of the Bryn Athyn Cathedral project was to create a structure in which aesthetics served a spiritual purpose. The building committee admired the beauty of medieval cathedrals and the methods used to build them. They especially valued the ability of a cathedral to symbolically express Christian beliefs by means of its architectural form, sculptural decoration, and stained glass. They hoped to express New Church beliefs through the intricate and varied decoration of the Cathedral, wrought in stone, wood, metal, and stained glass.

solderingmar09.jpgRaymond Pitcairn was appointed by the committee to oversee the project. Although he had no formal architectural training, he developed his own unique building philosophy, believing Bryn Athyn Cathedral ought to be built “in the Gothic way.” Like the great cathedrals of medieval Europe, the undertaking was a community effort. The building process was organic, and changes in design were a daily occurrence. Pitcairn encouraged creative input from the craftsmen themselves, who worked together with designers in the workshops and studios built for them on site. The work of the craftsmen was compared to that of a symphony in which many individual voices join together in harmony.

Stained glass windows had been an essential part of medieval cathedrals since the beginning of the twelfth century. Abbot Suger (d. 1151), of the Abbey Church of St. Denis in France, had expounded a theory of “divine light.” Suger viewed the natural light streaming through the walls of colored glass as symbolic of heavenly light and a means to union with God. The impact of this light is entirely dependent on the quality of the stained glass windows. Pitcairn was determined to duplicate the textures and pure colors of the medieval glass he had admired in the churches of Europe.

The Bryn Athyn artists and craftsmen were faced with the reality that the medieval arts of hand-blown glassmaking, glass painting, and window construction had been almost completely forgotten in industrialized, twentieth-century America. To rediscover this lost art form, they would turn, not to contemporary glass artists, but to ancient manuscripts, bold experimentation, and the silent testimony of the medieval windows themselves.

Photos: The color photograph shows the glassblowing bench, part of the exhibition, “Painting with Light: The Revival of Medieval Glassmaking in Bryn Athyn,” in Glencairn Museum’s upper hall. Photo by Ed Gyllenhaal. The first black and white photograph shows Winfred Sumner Hyatt at his work bench in the stained glass studio, located in Cairnwood’s garden house. The next photograph shows an unidentified craftsman soldering a window. (If anyone is able to identify this individual please contact the editors at the address listed below.) The originals for both black and white photographs are taken from 35 mm slides in the collection of the Glencairn Museum Archives, Bryn Athyn, PA.

Further Reading:

Links to glassmaking in Bryn Athyn

Local newspaper article about “Painting with Light”

Questions and comments may be addressed to the editors at

March 24, 2009 | Posted by: Ed and Kirsten Gyllenhaal in New Church History Fun Fact