Reflections of Faith: Making Stained Glass Windows for Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn
On Sunday, April 22, 2007, more than 400 people visited Glencairn Museum to enjoy the 2nd annual “Reflections of Faith: A Stained Glass Sunday at Glencairn.” An exhibit of historic photographs and original tools used in the creation of windows for Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn allowed visitors to explore the techniques and materials employed in the Bryn Athyn glass factory (see photo, below). Live demonstrations of glassblowing techniques used by the Bryn Athyn craftsmen were presented by Jason Klein of Historical Glassworks throughout the afternoon (see photo, left). J. Kenneth Leap from the Stained Glass Center at WheatonArts led two workshops where participants painted their own piece of glass using medieval and Bryn Athyn techniques. A special guided tour and a family project were also part of the afternoon’s offerings.
The history of stained glass production in Bryn Athyn dates to the early 1920s, when a factory was built on ground only a few hundred yards from Bryn Athyn Cathedral, a New Church house of worship. The factory was in continuous operation from July, 1922, to April, 1942, when it was shut down because of the war. The building was torn down in 1952, but many of the tools and materials were preserved and are now part of the collections of Glencairn Museum. All of the glass and mosaic made for Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn, the castle-like home of Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn completed in 1939, were produced in this factory. Raymond Pitcairn was determined to duplicate the textures and pure colors of the medieval glass he admired in the churches of Europe, and this proved to be a monumental undertaking.
In industrialized America the art of making hand-blown glass had virtually disappeared. To achieve the quality he was looking for, the Bryn Athyn studio had to do no less than rediscover the lost techniques of the medieval glassmakers. Pitcairn arranged for a translation of a manuscript in Latin by Theophilus, a 12th century German monk who had described the art of stained glass making. He also sent his artists to France and England to draw and photograph the stained glass windows in the churches there.
It was clear from the very beginning that for their experiments to make progress the Bryn Athyn glassmakers would also need hands-on access to actual medieval windows. Their opportunity came in 1921, when the Henry C. Lawrence collection was put on the auction block in New York City. During the three days of the sale, Raymond Pitcairn refused to be outbid, and came away with twenty-three panels of medieval glass. He continued to make purchases, and in time his collection would grow to include more than 260 panels.
NewChurchHistory.org includes the New Church History Image Project, a collection of albums containing historic photographs. One of these, “Glassmaking in Bryn Athyn,” uses historic and recent photographs to provide an overview of the stained glass and mosaic techniques employed in Bryn Athyn. The entire album can be viewed here. Two sample photos are below.
One method of blowing flat glass to be cut for stained glass windows was to create a “rondel,” a circular disk made by spinning out a “gather” of glass. David Smith (1864-1946), pictured here, was the principal glassblower. When the glass on the blowpipe needed to be removed to allow another part of it to be worked on, a solid metal rod called a “punty” was used (held by a second glassblower not visible in this photo).
This glassblower’s bench is one of two found in February 2006, in the old barn where they had been stored when the glass factory was torn down in 1952. This bench is the same one pictured in photographs of David Smith (1864-1946) working in the Bryn Athyn glass factory.
Also available on NewChurchHistory.org: “The Making of the Glencairn Methuselah Window,” by Lawrence Saint. This is a written record kept from December 13, 1927 to May 17, 1928 by Lawrence Saint, a stained glass artist who made windows for Bryn Athyn Cathedral and later Washington National Cathedral. Most of it concerns the making of the Methuselah window, later installed in the living room/library of Glencairn, the home of Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn (now Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, PA). This window is a copy of the original in Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England.
Questions and comments about this “New Church History Fun Fact” may be addressed to the editors via e-mail.
Photos: Chara Odhner, Ed Gyllenhaal