The Romanesque and Gothic art that was assembled by Raymond Pitcairn in the early part of this century represents the world's finest and most extensive collection of medieval sculpture and stained glass still in private hands. Raymond Pitcairn's activities as a collector began with an architectural commission—the creation of a cathedral for the General Church of the New Jerusalem in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. His motives for collecting monumental sculpture and stained glass were twofold: He sought definitive exemplars from the "Age of the Cathedrals" to inspire his craftsmen to make the new cathedral a fitting place to worship, and he delighted in the simple pleasure of possessing unique and beautiful objects.
The title of this exhibition, "Radiance and Reflection," evokes the essence of medieval art. Natural light, whether reflected from the carved surfaces of sculpture or radiating from the stained-glass windows of churches, was equated by theologians of the Middle Ages with divine light. Medieval art exploited these light effects, which constantly transformed, modified, and re-created the image. To paraphrase the eminent art historian Henri Focillon, Romanesque sculpture is a delicate mesh of deep shadow, close knit and continuous, in which a labyrinth of ornament and image hugs the stone block from which it is carved. In Gothic sculpture, these complications are replaced by more tranquil surfaces, and by modeling in large, simple planes, on which light falls without complexity. Twelfth-century stained glass retains the monumentality of Romanesque calligraphy, its radiant forms shaped in accordance with the demands of the field. In thirteenth-century windows, these forms are multiplied and distributed over immense solar tapestries, which set the Scriptures, as well as profane history, against the open sky. The epic fervor of the twelfth century has given way, in both sculpture and glass, to a kind of reserved majesty, an image of life bathed in light. Through the splendid works of art in the Pitcairn collection, we are offered a glimpse of these qualities of which Focillon has written. The variety and originality of medieval creativity embodied in these masterpieces make them a continual source of refreshment to the eye and to the spirit.
Until now, the Pitcairn collection has been little known, even to scholars of medieval studies. Only a small sampling from Bryn Athyn has been seen by the general public, through loans to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1931, and at three, more-recent exhibitions at The Metropolitan Museum of Art—"Medieval Art from Private Collections" (held at The Cloisters in 1968), "The Year 1200" (part of the Metropolitan Museum's centennial celebration in 1970), and "The Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis in the Time of Abbot Suger, 1122–1151" (at The Cloisters in 1981). For "Radiance and Reflection: Medieval Art from the Raymond Pitcairn Collection," Jane Hayward, Curator at The Cloisters, and an expert in the field of medieval stained glass—and the mastermind behind this exhibition—has selected 122 splendid works of medieval art from the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn.