If you wander through the light-filled sculpture court of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you may come upon angels.
There they are, on the right side of the courtyard. Look up and you’ll see one blowing a trumpet.
Walk forward and you’ll see a line of them surrounding a giant limestone pulpit. They are all rather busy swinging censers, strewing flowers, and playing musical instruments. One holds a scale and a sword. Maybe she’s assigned to mete out justice. Several are talking, or singing perhaps.
The pulpit is the work of the Austrian-born sculptor Karl Bitter who immigrated to the United States as a 21-year old in 1889 after deserting from the Austrian army. The pulpit was completed in 1896 and stood in All Angels Church, which at the time was located on West End Avenue and 80th Street. In addition to the pulpit, the church featured a two-and-a-half story Tiffany window.
Bitter enjoyed great success in America. He created sculptures for the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Yes, that’s the one that is the subject of Erik Larson’s book, Devil in the White City. Bitter also did sculptural work on many other buildings including Trinity Church, the Biltmore Estate, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bitter died in 1915 at age 47 when he was struck by a car.
All Angels Church has its own fascinating history. It was founded in the 1830s, well before the pulpit was carved or the building it stood in was built. All Angels’ first church building was a wooden structure constructed in Seneca Village, a nineteenth-century inter-racial community on the west side of Manhattan. Seneca Village was established in 1825, and was the first place in the city that African Americans owned property. In addition to its African American founders, Seneca Village became home to German and Irish immigrants.
What happened to Seneca Village and the original All Angels Church? The land was taken by eminent domain in 1857 when construction began on Central Park, and the whole village was demolished. Demolition was also the fate of the second All Angels building. In 1979 it was torn down, and an apartment building was constructed in its place. Fortunately, the beautiful pulpit found a home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All Angels is now in its third location, on West 80th Street.
There are so many threads that connect these carved angels to New York City and the history of art and architecture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s description of the pulpit can be found at https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/10170. Another interesting note can be found on the website of Evergreene, an architectural arts company that removed, then reinstalled the pulpit during a renovation of the American Wing. https://evergreene.com/projects/karl-bitters-all-angels-church-pulpit-and-choir-rail-disassembly-and-reinstallation-metropolitan-museum-of-art/