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The Jewels of Bryn Athyn
Bob Brooke


Set in the northern suburbs bordering the City of Philadelphia lies Bryn Athyn, a quiet Pennsylvania town and home to a magnificent Gothic-style cathedral. Within its confines are jewels the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Middle Ages—its stained glass windows.

The origins of the art of stained glass dates from the 12th and 13th century. Back then the largest buildings were the churches and cathedrals. Workers in the fields could see their mighty towers thrusting up above the landscape and turned to them to say their prayers. But once inside, the people were transported to a heavenly world, filled with colored light as the sun streamed through the pieces of colored glass.

The construction of Bryn Athyn Cathedral in a combination of Gothic and Romanesque styles necessitated the study of the lost art of Medieval stained glass.

Although the cathedral’s windows took on the form of famous medieval European cathedrals like Chartres in France, they contained symbolism inspired by New Church beliefs as found in the Bible and the writing of Emanuel Swedenborg. The purpose of symbolism in religious art is "to bring the Lord present in worship, that He may be present not only through the sense of hearing but also through the sense of sight."

The Bryn Athyn Glass Studio
By 1913, Bryn Athyn Cathedral slowly began to dominated the local skyline. With masons and sculptors already hard at work on the structure itself, Raymond Pitcairn, son of John Pitcairn, turned his attention to the stained glass windows he hoped would illuminate the cathedral's interior. Pitcairn's goal was to match the textures and brilliant colors of the stained glass found in the great medieval cathedrals of the 12th and 13th centuries.

Unfortunately, the arcane chemical formulas and hand-blown techniques used by medieval glassmakers had long since been abandoned by the glass factories of industrialized America. Perpetually dissatisfied with the quality of the available commercial glass, in 1915 Pitcairn hired local artists to experiment with re-melting commercial glass over a bed of sand and pebbles in an effort to recreate the irregular textures that give medieval glass so much of its beauty. The experiments were a failure, but these humble attempts to imitate the special qualities of medieval glass marked the beginning of a quest that lasted tar the next decade.

In 1921, Pitcairn purchased 23 panels of medieval stained glass at an auction from the renowned collection of Henry- C. Lawrence. He intended these panels were intended as a source of information and inspiration for the growing number of artists and craftsmen he was employing in his quest to rediscover the techniques of medieval glassmakers.

As progress continued on the cathedral, Pitcairn expanded his medieval glass purchases; in time his collection grew to include more than 260 panels.

In 1922, Raymond Pitcairn established a factory for producing stained glass across the street from the cathedral. The windows were designed and painted in a makeshift studio set up in Cairnwood's garden house. By the time the glass factory closed in 1942, it had produced glass for all of the windows in Bryn Athyn Cathedral, as well as stained glass and glass mosaic for Glencairn, Pitcairn's own home. Bryn Athyn's stained glass artists continued producing windows for the cathedral into the 1960s.

In 1916, Raymund Pitcairn met John A. Larson, a Swedish immigrant descended from a family of master glassblowers. Larson had set up his own glass factory in New York City, and Pitcairn employed him to conduct experiments in replicating medieval glassmaking techniques. In an effort to duplicate the original colors and textures, Larson studied medieval stained glass collections in New York City and later Pitcairn's own collection. Pitcairn built his own stained glass factory just across the road from Bryn Athyn Cathedral. The factory made its first batch of glass on July 5, 1922, and Larson stayed on to manage the operation until 1925.

Assisting John Larson at the factory were David Smith, a Swedish glassblower whom Larson had brought from his New fork factory, and Ariel C. Gunther, a member of the New Church congregation in Bryn Athyn who had been hired as an apprentice. Only 19 years old when he began the work, Gunther was closely involved in the experiments that took place during Larson's tenure at the factory. When Larson left the project in 1925, Gunther took over management of the factory and continued to perfect the color formula.

Ariel Gunther mixed together ingredients for glassblowing in the glass factory. Medieval stained glass and the variety of ;glass made in Bryn Athyn is known as "pot metal" glass. The three main ingredients—sand, sodium carbonate, and lime produce a clear glass when melted at high temperatures. Craftsmen achieved the colors by introducing metallic oxides such as iron, copper, gold, and silver in various ratios and quantities.

The temperature in the furnace and the length of firing time were extremely important. Certain colors require a hot, fast tire, while others are melted at lower temperatures for a longer period of time. The process of blowing glass began when a glass blower wound a large "gather" of molten glass onto the end of a "blowpipe."

Workers in the Bryn Athyn glass factory perfected two principal methods of glassblowing—the cylinder method and the rondel method. While the cylinder method provided more square inches of glass, the rondel method was useful for its distinctive optical qualities.

Early in the work of preparing for Bryn Athyn Cathedral's stained glass windows, Raymond Pitcairn enlisted the help of Winfred S. Hyatt, a young art student from a New Church family. Even as he pursued his studies, Pitcairn chose Hyatt to be a member of the cathedral's symbolism committee, charged with developing the subject matter for the cathedral's stained glass windows and sculptures.

He also put in charge of the stained glass studio in Cairnwood's garden house Hyatt, who worked on designs for windows as early as 1915. He produced hundreds of original cartoons and sketches and did most of the glass painting on the final windows. Hyatt continued doing this until he died in 1959.

Artists used a scale watercolor design, adapted from a stained glass window in Chartres Cathedral in France, was used in the creation of the central lancet window in the north wall of Glencairn's great hall. Each stained glass window made for Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn went through a meticulous design process—from sketch, to scale version in watercolors, to full-sized cartoon—craftsmen cut the glass and assembled the window.

The subject matter of the cathedral windows first had to be finalized by the symbolism committee, a process which in itself could take a great deal of time. The artists submitted preliminary pencil sketches which the members of the committee evaluated until they chose one to use.

After the committee finalized the design of a window, another artist would trace the full-sized painted drawing, which included lead lines, onto heavy brown paper. He would then cut up the tracing into individual pieces with a special pair of shears that reduced the size of each piece to account for the width of the leads so the window would he the correct size when assembled. He then matched each piece of paper to a panel of glass of the appropriate color. Each hand-blown panel produced in the Bryn Athyn factory was individual in tone and texture, making it possible for the artist to select the appropriate piece of glass as required by the design.

Raymond Pitcairn hired Lawrence B. Saint to design and paint windows and also to conduct research and experimental murk. Saint worked on the Bryn Athyn project from 1917 until 1928, when he left to begin work on the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. where he served as director of the stained glass department.

The glass paint used to create the faces and other details in medieval stained glass was something of a chemical mystery. After much experimentation, Lawrence Saint developed his own paint formula. He melted glass frit and metallic oxide together in a tiny porcelain crucible using an electric furnace. Saint then crushed the mixture to produce a powdered glass paint. He used a glass grinder, known as a "mullet," to mix the glass paint with a liquid so it could be applied with a paintbrush.

The Bryn Athyn artists carefully painted on the faces, hands, feet, and other details once they cut the pieces of glass. Next, they fired the pieces in a small electric kiln, bonding the paint to the glass. Pitcairn originally hired Albert E. Cullen, horn in England, to make tracings and paintings of windows at Canterbury, Chartres, and other cathedrals. In 1928, he came to America to work for the Bryn Athyn stained glass studio.

The glazier cut out individual nieces of glass using a glass cutter. He then assembled the various elements of the window with pieces of lead. The studio purchased lead "came," shaped like an I-beam, in six-hoot lengths. The came had a channel on each side for the glass to fit into. Once artisans assembled the glass with the came, they soldered the joints on both sides of the window. Next, in order to make the window weatherproof, they lifted up the edges of the leading and poured a special putty onto the glass and scrubbed it into the spaces. The leads were then pressed down and the putty was allowed to set before they mounted the window in its final space in the cathedral or in Pitcairn’s home, Glencairn.

This window, located above Bryn Athyn Cathedral's north portal depicts the biblical characters Adam, Noah, the woman clothed with the sun, from the Book of Revelation 12.1, John the Evangelist, and Aaron.

Abbot Suger, of the Abbey Church of St. Denis In France, had expounded a theory of "divine light." Suger viewed the sunlight streaming through the walls of colored glass as symbolic of the heavenly light and a means to union with God.

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