Offertory Bowls for Bryn Athyn Cathedral by Thorsten Sigstedt (1945)

offbowl3thumbsept08.jpg“The bowls are to be used at the three entrances to the Cathedral. They are designed to fit one within another, that all may be brought forward to the Altar and formally presented to the Lord” (George de Charms, “Offertory Bowls for the Bryn Athyn Church,” New Church Life 1945, 347).

offbowl2sept08.jpgThree offertory bowls, made by woodcarver Thorsten Sigstedt, were given to the Bryn Athyn Church by the family of Bishop William Frederic Pendleton in commemoration of the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth (March 25, 1945). The mahogany bowls were unveiled at an afternoon reception held at the Pendleton family home in Bryn Athyn (Pendle House). The festivities included the playing of a phonograph record of a speech Pendleton had given in 1927. The gift of the bowls was accepted by Bishop George de Charms, who described the symbolism of the carvings and inscriptions to the assembled guests. Later that year, de Charms wrote an article about the bowls for New Church Life.

offbowl1sept08.jpgSigstedt had the mahogany bowls turned by a local company (perhaps the famous John Grass Wood Turning Company) before commencing the hand-carved scenes. (See photos of the three bowls, left and above.)  The largest bowl represents the Israelitish Church, with subject matter taken from the Old Testament:

“On one side the Children of Israel are depicted bringing offerings for the building of the Tabernacle, as described in Exodus 25:1-9; 35:21-29. The Tabernacle is represented by the tables of the Law surrounded by a cloud and fire. On the Lord’s Table (to the right) are engraved in Hebrew characters the words ‘I am the Lord’: and on man’s table (to the left) the words ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ In this way it is intended, by symbolizing the first and the last commandments, to represent the entire Decalogue. On the opposite side of the bowl workmen are pictured bringing offerings of wood and stone for the building of the temple” (Ibid., 347).

The middle-sized bowl represents the Christian Church, with scenes from the New Testament:

“On one side the Wise Men are represented bringing offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Savior (Matthew 2:11). On the opposite side is depicted the offering of the widow’s mite, described in Luke 21:1-4. The widow, holding a child by the hand, is seen dropping her small coin into the treasury, while the rich Pharisees come proudly with their moneybags, heralded by a trumpeter” (Ibid., 347).

The smallest bowl (see photo, top) represents the New Church, with subject matter taken from the Book of Revelation and Swedenborg’s Writings:

“On one side is pictured the angel offering incense before the altar in heaven as the seven angels with seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound (Rev. 8:1-6). On the other side is carved a representation showing certain angelic spirits fashioning a lampstand with its lamps and flowers of the richest ornamentation in honor of the Lord . . . (AC 552) . . . The rim of this bowl bears an inscription in raised letters overlaid with gold: ‘What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?’ (Psalm 116:12)” (Ibid., 347).

offbowl08sept5a.jpgIn 1957 Sigstedt made a fourth bowl to enclose the other three, with carvings representing the Most Ancient Church on one side and the Ancient Church on the other. (See photo, left.) More recently a fifth bowl was commissioned by the Bryn Athyn Church from woodcarver Jon Alley. All five of the bowls continue to be used for Sunday services at Bryn Athyn Cathedral.

Thorsten Sigstedt (1884-1963) was born in Sweden, a country with a rich tradition of woodcarving. He studied in Paris for a time in order to master the French rococo style of furniture carving. He and his brother designed and made fine rococo furniture which they sold in their Stockholm store. He also won a Swedish national contest for the commission to detail and carve the decorations on the royal ceremonial boat, Vasaorden, used during royal weddings and State visits.

In 1927 Sigstedt moved to the United States with his wife Cyriel, a Swedenborgiana research scholar and archivist. He eventually settled with his family in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, where he had a home and studio on Rose Lane. He was very interested in the history of art, especially as it relates to religion and the spiritual forces at work in an individual artist’s work:

“I am sure that deep within the artist, in his fervor, in his incredible daring in allowing himself to be led into these mysterious depths, searching for incalculable treasures and attempting to ultimate them in lifeless materials, there is a hidden religious current, of which he may not be consciously aware. But what he does know is that what he is doing is more than a play with colors and inter-relating lines and planes which we call forms. He is obeying calls from within, which are commands, and his desire is to become an easily moved living instrument for heavenly beings to play on, even if he is totally ignorant of the existence of heavenly beings” (Thorsten Sigstedt, “Art in Relation to Religion,” Consociation of New Churchmen, Summer 1948, 3).

Glencairn Museum’s New Church art collection includes a wood carving by Sigstedt of the Ark of the Covenant’s mercy seat and cherubim. The figures for the Museum’s scale model of the Tabernacle of Israel, made in the 1920s, were carved by him as well.

NewChurchhistory.org would welcome any information our readers might have about New Church art created by Thorsten Sigstedt. Thorsten Sigstedt’s son, Val, kindly provided biographical information used in the writing of this New Church History Fun Fact. 

Photos: The two black and white photographs are from the collection of the Academy of the New Church Archives, Swedenborg Library, Bryn Athyn, PA. The color photographs were taken by Stewart Farmer.

Questions and comments may be addressed to the editors at [email protected]

October 20, 2008 | Posted by: Ed and Kirsten Gyllenhaal in New Church History Fun Fact