by Barbara Sherf
Grab your binoculars for an angel talk and walking tour on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2 p.m., at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, 22 E. Chestnut Hill Ave., where the Rev. Clifford Cutler will show participants dozens of angels, many of them hidden and not readily seen.
The Center for Contemporary Mysticism is hosting the program in which Cutler, the church rector, will explain why the architect, Clarence Zantzinger, turned to such a medieval form as angels in the 20th century.
According to the American Institute of Architects, Zantzinger, a native Philadelphian, earned a B.S. in Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and then spent two years at the Ecoledes Beaux-Arts in Paris, graduating in 1901. He returned to Chestnut Hill and set out his shingle, soon receiving his first commission: a building to house the West Philadelphia branch (today, the Walnut Street West branch) of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Among other projects, he worked on the Philadelphia Museum of Art, William Penn Charter School and Bryn Mawr Hospital.
In a previous interview, Cutler noted that “This church was built in 1928 with an explosion of angels. I believe the architect wanted to express the mystery of our faith.”
Theologian David Bentley Hart suggests that symbols and imaginative capacities flow down from above. He believed the angels drew the architect out of Clarence Zantzinger. “Hart designed an enchanting church,” said Cutler, who recently announced that he will be retiring soon with his wife, Amy, to the Boston area to be near family members.
According to a 20-page booklet produced by Cutler, there are 20 angels extending over the congregation from the hammer-beams supporting the structure. Above the ceiling arches stand 10 more angels holding crowns. Two angels carved in stone decorate the high altar. Outside, high above all in the western wall of the church stands the Archangel Michael carved in stone. On either side of the doors are two stone angels for a total of 35 angels, not even counting others that can be discovered in the plaques and stand-alone prayer desks intended for private devotional use.
Cutler, 69, who became St. Paul’s 11th rector in February of 2006, was born in Germantown and grew up in Montgomery County along the banks of the Wissahickon. According to Cutler, the carved roof angels that first appeared in England in the 1400s were not devotional statues nor the object of individual focus, but were part of the overall roof scheme.
“They were structural. At the same time, they drew the eyes of the worshipper to contemplation of the heavenly realm. I know of two other angel roofs other than ours, all built in the 20th century.”
The Church of the Savior’s angel roof (now the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral) was built in 1906. The Holy Cross Roman Catholic Parish’s angel roof in Mt. Airy is contemporaneous with Paul’s, 1929 and 1928, respectively. They still fulfill their purpose of lifting our gaze.
“Think of people’s posture today,” said Cutler. “So often we are hunched over our cell phones. Watch what happens when you enter Saint Paul’s. The angels draw your attention upward. You straighten up. Angels are all about transcendence.”
Cutler has a theory as to why angel roofs appeared again in the 20th century. “There was a shift in science that allowed for more thoughts of indeterminacy and mystery. That is why I think the architect put on an ‘angel roof’ to bestow a sense of transcendence.”
The Angels of Saint Paul’s Tour will start in Dixon House and move into the church for a look at the angels up close. Participants will enjoy refreshments, including angel cookies. Hand-crafted Christmas “Peace” angels, benefitting the Aruna Partnership in South India, will be on sale for $15. Aruna is the root of the Sanskrit word meaning “compassion.”
Flourtown resident Barbara Sherf writes the stories of individuals and business owners through CommunicationsPro.com. This event is sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Mysticism at Saint Paul’s Church. For more information, visit contemporarymysticism.org