Asymmetries and Faith – Bryn Athyn (Dennis Aubrey)


At Bryn Athyn, they boast that there are no right angles in the Cathedral of the New Church. There are constant variations in both plan and elevation. No arches are alike, no stained glass window trefoils identical, and even the floor is raked.

Photographically, there is a challenge to capturing these architectural imperfections – albeit intentional imperfections. On which pillars, for example, do we set our verticals? How can we be sure that the tilt-shift adjustments that we make are capturing what our eyes see and not creating a different set of adjustments.

But we did make an effort to capture these effects as best we could. In a previous article, we discussed the concept of entasis in some detail and how we would use the opportunity to shoot at Bryn Athyn to develop our techniques in preparation for further work in Europe. The Bryn Athyn Cathedral is a treasure-trove of asymmetries and proved a fruitful prototype.

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

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

Look carefully at the stately march of the compound piers in the nave. Notice that the second free-standing one is slightly closer to the center of the nave than the others – there is a gentle bulge of five inches inwards to the line of columns. This curve in the plan was the first of the refinements introduced at the church.

Arcade entasis in the nave, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Arcade entasis in the nave, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Also notice that flat capitals are not the same height. There is a gentle rise to the center column and then they descend again at the distant tower crossing, a curve of six inches. Notice how the white line appears at the top of the first capital but at the bottom of the middle one, then at the top again in the distance.

Elevation difference in nave capitals – Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Elevation difference in nave capitals – Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There is also an elevation refinement in the floor of the nave. From the west entrance to the crossing, the floor rises twelve inches. It is only appropriate, in the description by the kind docent named Sylvia, that we mount toward the sanctuary in the east. Sylvia, by the way, was baptized in the cathedral 92 years ago, married there, and today describes with passion and affection the many unique facets of her church.

Rising nave floor, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Rising nave floor, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The most visible example of these variations is found in the sanctuary arch of the chancel, which diverges significantly outwards as illustrated by the two vertical white lines. In a medieval church, this divergence would have been used to create the illusion that the columns rose straight vertically. At Bryn Athyn, the effect is described by the church as “The most daring of the church’s departures from rectilinear lines, its exultant leap breaks the passive stillness of the stone.”

Entasis in the sanctuary arch, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Entasis in the sanctuary arch, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

There are dozens of examples of entasis in the cathedral. None of the arcades arches are of exactly the same height or width. The chancel has the same distortions and variations as the nave. We have a personal feeling that the builders at Bryn Athyn found in these asymmetries something like a new toy and they put them on display everywhere.

In the Middle Ages, these imperfections were used to correct for human vision – lines and surfaces were curved so that they appeared straight. They gave the appearance of perfection. They were invisible; this is why it took so long for us to understand what was going on. The great Viollet-le-Duc was not even aware that the soaring columns of Amiens diverged, so subtle were the curves and so perfect the effect.

In Bryn Athyn the builders boldly placed their effects on display. Asymmetry and distortion are the rule. We cannot miss the effect in the sanctuary arch because it was meant to be noticed. This is charming in its way, but in the end it is a distraction.

Nave from south transept, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by PJ McKey

Nave from south transept, Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn (Pennsylvania) Photo by PJ McKey

Perhaps this is my personal conservatism speaking, though, because what occurred is remarkable – we find it only in this single church outside of Philadelphia. It is, perhaps, the American way. The builders took a concept and created a thing new and dynamic. Using the power of an idea, a cathedral was built that reflected the past but stands firmly in the present. In Bryn Athyn we find expressions in stone echoing the expression of their faith.

Location: 40.134295° -75.063335°

4 responses to “Asymmetries and Faith – Bryn Athyn (Dennis Aubrey)

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