A First Look at Bryn Athyn Cathedral (Dennis Aubrey)


We wrote earlier about our plans to photograph the Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Just before the New Year we spent two days photographing the church inside and out. We had received permission for full access to the church and several docents gave us invaluable information about the history and conception of the structure.

Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Bryn Athyn Cathedral is the episcopal seat of The General Church of the New Jerusalem, a denomination of “The New Church,” based on the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. It features a simple nave with two side aisles, two side chapels at then eastern end of the side aisles past the short transepts, and an apse with a flat wall.

Nave from choir loft, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nave from choir loft, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The nave elevation shows high arcades and large clerestory windows topped by a superb wooden vault. The stained glass windows in the clerestory are quite beautiful examples of the work done by the Bryn Athyn artisans.

Nave elevation, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave elevation, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by PJ McKey

The choir has a beautifully paved stone floor and leads to the altar below the stained glass windows in the east wall of the apse. We can see the echeloned side chapel on the north side.

Choir and apse, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by PJ McKey

Choir and apse, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by PJ McKey

The church differs from its Gothic models in one significant way – since there is a wooden roof instead of a stone vault, there is no requirement for significant external or internal buttressing. That means that the side aisles buttress the nave walls through the simple expedient of quarter arches attached from the external wall to the nave piers. This was the form of buttressing that was first used at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité – Abbaye aux Dames – in Caen.

Side aisle with quarter round arches, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle with quarter round arches, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by PJ McKey

The stained glass at the Cathedral is quite wonderful and created with the same techniques as were used in Europe during the Middle Ages. The pigments and metallic oxides were melted into the glass and then a glass blower created a disk of glass with varying degrees of thickness and brightness. These were then flattened and used in the windows.

Altar window detail, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Altar window detail, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Another unique feature of the workmanship was the use of monel metal, an alloy of nickel and copper. The metalwork of the western door is made of monel except for the horse in the tympanum. Since this was to represent a white horse and since monel turns green with age, it was made of stainless steel.

Western metalwork door, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by PJ McKey

Western metalwork door, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by PJ McKey

The construction of the Cathedral was quite unusual. Since it was funded privately, the members of the church, led by Raymond Pitcarin, decided that the construction should reflect a deep collaboration between the builders and the church. After coming into contact with the work of William Henry Goodyear and the effect of entasis in the medieval churches, asymmetries and irregularities were planned into the building during the course of construction. These asymmetries were used to provide visual interest in the church but also to reflect the spiritual values that sustained the congregation.

Dennis using laser to determine entasis, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by PJ McKey

Dennis using laser to determine entasis, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by PJ McKey

We plan to do a further post on these asymmetries in the next week or so. This is a difficult subject for photography but we believe that we might have done it justice.

Location: 40.134295° -75.063335°

13 responses to “A First Look at Bryn Athyn Cathedral (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I really love these images. Your camera placement is fabulous and your alignment perfect as always. Love the shadows you captured too. You guys are the boss!

    • Ann, the artistry is really spectacular. There is a great story told to us by the docent Sylvia – the builders were looking far and wide for a source of appropriate stone but couldn’t find it. Then one day, one of the masons came onto the site with a sample of stone that was perfect. More to the point, it was located in a quarry just a couple of miles away. Serendipity!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s