The director of Glencairn Museum on the enduring power and appeal of religious art
We all seek higher meaning and purpose in our lives. This has always been the case, throughout time and across cultures. We are united in asking enduring questions: Is there a higher power? How am I called to live my life? What will happen to me after death? While these questions and others unify us as humans, there is a rich, beautiful, and enlightening diversity in the ways in which we have answered these questions as individuals, cultures, and faiths. Glencairn Museum seeks to interpret art and artifacts as expressions of faith—as illustrations of religious beliefs and practices around the world and through time.
This relationship between art and faith can be seen in Medieval Treasures from the Glencairn Museum, now on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in gallery 307. Visitors may be unaware that this is but the latest product of a rich, long-standing relationship between the PMA and the Glencairn Museum collection reaching back nearly a century.
Raymond Pitcairn’s Vision
When the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened its new medieval wing in March 1931, this monumental series of fourteen galleries included more than seventy works of medieval art on temporary loan from what is today the Glencairn collection, then the private collection of Raymond Pitcairn (1885–1966). At least forty of these works remained on display at the PMA for decades, and nearly a dozen can still be enjoyed today in the medieval galleries as either long-term loans or gifts by Pitcairn to the museum’s permanent collection.
Pitcairn’s loans and gifts, which helped shape the PMA’s medieval exhibitions, stemmed from a shared vision: to display medieval art within an intentional, immersive architectural environment that transports us through time and allows us to engage with medieval works in a space that evokes their original setting.
At the time, Pitcairn was engaged in just such an endeavor with his own home. During the 1920s, while supervising the design and construction of the Gothic- and Romanesque-style Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Pitcairn had begun to acquire medieval sculpture and stained glass as inspirational models for the cathedral’s artists and craftspeople.
As the cathedral project neared completion, Pitcairn envisioned building a “cloister studio” as an intentional space in which to house his growing medieval collection. As he wrote to his brother, “One of the most striking differences between art of the past and that of today is the fact that the ancient art objects were not isolated things which were more or less forced into their surroundings, they were part and parcel of the temple, the acropolis, the house or tomb for which they were made. Our private collections as well as our museums are full of things which do not really fit their surroundings … art became more and more divorced from its proper relation to the living conditions of the people.”
In this, Pitcairn was inspired by George Grey Barnard’s Cloisters (now the Met Cloisters), which he described as “head and shoulders above the private and museum collections because his objects were made part of the building into which he built them.”
Upon its completion in 1939, Pitcairn’s “cloister studio” had become the 45,000-square-foot castle-like building he named “Glencairn,” which he designed both as a home for his family and as an immersive space for his collection, with medieval artworks built into the fabric of the building. Pitcairn’s aim was not to simply recreate the old, however, but to place old and new in juxtaposition by commissioning original works of art for Glencairn that embodied his own personal—Swedenborgian Christian—faith. For Pitcairn, the purpose of art was to raise our minds up to higher, more spiritual things.
Standing in Glencairn’s Great Hall, feeling the power of the space, I share the experience described by medieval art historian Jennifer Borland upon her visit to Glencairn: “The space reframes each work, leading us to see such spaces as actively creating a new life for old objects amidst the new.”
Raymond Pitcairn designed Glencairn as a space that invites us to engage with medieval works, “not as isolated things,” but embedded within an aesthetic that evokes the settings in which the artworks first existed, and the people for whom they first held meaning.
What Is the Relevance of Medieval Art Today?
Experiencing these artworks invites us into a conversation with the beliefs and practices of others as they sought to answer the same questions we ourselves ask. Consider the twelfth-century limestone capital below from the Abbey Church of Moutiers-Saint-Jean depicting a portion of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man from the Gospel of Luke (16:19–31. In the story, a wealthy man, dining lavishly each day, ignored the sufferings of a poor man named Lazarus, covered in sores, begging outside his gate for the crumbs that fell from his table. After death, Lazarus was carried into heaven and placed in the lap of Abraham, while the rich man was tormented in the flames of hell.
With their roles now reversed, the rich man is depicted begging Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his burning tongue with water, to which Abraham replies, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.”
What if we temporarily suspend our own judgment—letting go of our own answers—and seek to understand, from the perspective of the twelfth-century artist or religious practitioner, how this work of art depicts their answers to the questions of salvation? How might we sharpen our own answers by reflecting on theirs regarding the divergent fates of Lazarus and the rich man, divided forever after death and so vividly depicted here?
Or consider the twelfth-century illustration of the Temptation of Christ (Luke 4:1–13 from the Collegiate Church of Saint-Gaudens. What beliefs or values—what answers to their questions—did this arresting imagery bring to mind for the members of this religious community as they passed by it on their walks through the cloister? Here Jesus responds to the devil’s challenge to turn the stone he holds forth into bread with the words, “‘Man shall not live on bread alone.”
Why did they choose to remind themselves daily of Christ’s resistance to temptation while in the wilderness? In answer to the enduring question of how we are to live our lives, they reminded themselves visually of the importance of resisting natural temptations. What images or reminders do we choose to surround ourselves with in our own homes or offices?
What do we gain by using works of art to sincerely open ourselves to the perspectives and testimonies of people who lived a long time ago, and who held beliefs that differ from our own? Perhaps by looking for the goodness in people, and engaging in self-reflection, we can develop empathy for others in our thoughts and actions while also bringing our own beliefs into sharper focus. When we next enter a museum or gallery, may we cross that threshold with openness, engage with art “from the inside,” and be willing to be transformed.
Glencairn Museum is honored to have these seventeen works from our collection on exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in a space that resonates so clearly with Pitcairn’s vision for Glencairn. I hope that you enjoy conversing with these works of art as much as I do.
Brian Henderson has been the Director of Glencairn Museum since 2013, having previously served as an assistant professor of history at Bryn Athyn College.