Archive for ‘statues’


“What would an angel say? The devil wants to know.”

[A few years back, I got to join my longtime friend who writes the Ephemeral New York blog as she sought out material for new posts. This 2010 post of mine, which resulted from one of our excursions, strikes me as a suitable seasonal rerun.]

In the murk of winter, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine makes you wend your way backwards through time—across traces of terrible fire, beneath vaulting conceived Romanesque but raised Gothic, past altars that look far older than they are. In the end, behind the sanctuary, is the beginning: the cathedral’s oldest chapel, where the saints of the Eastern church—Origen, Ignatius, Chrysostom, Basil—reign in their respective niches.

Across from them, around the portal, stand columns of angels. Though stacked head to toe, they rarely catch the eye, and they’ve gone largely unnoticed since 1905, when for one week, all New York was called to ponder them.

Gutzon Borglum was 38 years old. He had trained in Paris with Rodin, and his public monuments would soon rise across the United States, but for now, fame eluded him. A decade away from failing to carve Robert E. Lee into Stone Mountain and two decades before sculpting Mount Rushmore, Borglum set his mind and hands alike to a modest task: the careful making of angels.

Strongly nativist even by the standards of his day, Borglum admired the Klan, and the world would soon deem him cranky, stubborn, and confrontational. Yet the sculptor was none of those things on October 4, 1905, when Episcopalian officials stopped by his studio to see his plaster casts:

The clergy were admiring them when the up-State clergyman stopped before two statues, and broke the silence with this:

“Whoever heard of a woman angel?”

The clergy gasped: then the truth dawned upon them. For hundreds of years all over the world art had been depicting angels as female and in no place in the Bible could it be ascertained that angels were other than male.

The questionable figures were two of twenty angels meant for the Chapel of St. Saviour: the Angel of the Resurrection and, more sensitively, the Angel of the Annunciation. “It seems to me,” Borglum would later say, “that it is repugnant to every gentlemanly sense to conceive of a man performing that role. The idea is such a delicate one that I made the figure of even the woman shrink back after she had told the Virgin, as if it was almost too sacred a thing for her to put into words.”

Angelology focused the minds of New Yorkers. After claiming in its report on Borglum that 15th-century painter Fra Angelico had depicted female angels, the New York Times drew the ire of an anonymous Jesuit:

A headline on Page 6 of your to-day’s issue tells the public “We’re Wrong About Angels.” Indeed you are—you.

It would be interesting to know of one period or one picture where art has “depicted women angels.” As for Fra Angelico da Fiseole, he was a follower of Church tradition and of scholastic philosophy: the former of these invariably represents angels as appearing in the likeness of young men, while the latter teaches that angels are really incorporeal and sexless. Christian art, conventionally obliged to choose a sex for its angels, followed the hint given by the language of the Church, which invariably makes the names of the angels masculine—”Sancte Michael, Sancte Gabriel, Sancte Raphael,” never “Sancta.”

A day later, the Times replied with a cheeky editorial:

If Mr. BORGLUM had taken the trouble to read his New Testament in Greek before putting hand to clay on his commission for angels he would have avoided this shocking error in sex. He would have noted that AGGELOS is neither feminine nor neuter, but masculine, and so your angel must show in some fashion that he belongs to the tyrant sex. Bootless the plea that HOMER makes the lovely Iris a messenger of the goddess, and the Edda introduces the Valkyrs, who are tomboys, if you will, but maidens ever fair, as messengers of Wotan. These be pagan toys with which a properly Christian sculptor has naught to do . . . The book—what does the book say? Well, it says that angels are masculine. There you are.

Of course there must be women angels in heaven, for even MOHAMED stocks his Paradise with houris, but they never come down . . . Very likely the sensibilities of lady angels are too fragile to stand the coarseness of human life. Suppose one of them should light upon a wife beater, or see a car on the Brooklyn Bridge with forty men seated and thirty women standing! . . . We believe that with the astuteness of the fair sex raised to a heavenly degree these lady angels leave such chores to the males.

As newspaper nationwide chattered about Borglum’s angels, Dr. William Reed Huntington, chairman of the cathedral’s Sculpture Committee and the most influential Episcopal priest of his generation, fielded odd questions:

“I think in sacred art, as far as I know, face and form never indicate either male or female, but I must confess I never saw an angel with whiskers.”

“Or a moustache, doctor?” he was asked.

“No. Nor a moustache,” he replied.

“From some source or other,” ran a coy report two days later in a Pennsylvania paper, “came a horrid rumor that Mr. Borglum intended to put whiskers on the faces of his angels, so that there could be no question hereafter as to their sex.”

Voices rose, less a choir than a din. The New York Christian Herald hinted that the debate was a silly one, for where does scripture consistently show that angels even have wings? The New York Evening Post cited Emanuel Swedenborg on the existence of female angels. At the behest of newsmen, Jewish Encyclopedia editor Joseph Jacobs sifted through the Kaballah.

Borglum’s supporters minimized what happened next. In 1952, his wife Mary lamented that the affair “put upon the sculptor a stigma, a mark of an evil temper, which he carried to the end of his life.” A sympathetic 1961 biography suggested that the incident never happened at all.

Yet press reports from the following week are clear: Gutzon Borglum smashed the two offending angels:

I felt like a murderer, but that was the only thing to do under the circumstances . . .

I didn’t want an express man to haul them away to be stored somewhere. I didn’t want any one to touch them except myself. So I simply broke them to pieces myself, and I should hate to tell you how I felt when I did it.

Oh yes, I am under contract to do that work for the Cathedral. The word came that the angels must be men, and men they shall be.

That gentle, elegant sculptures proceeded from Borglum’s hands speaks well only of his talent; art and virtue are often estranged. Still, the sculptor showed surprising grace a few days later when he explained his plan for the cathedral’s first chapel:

The group was described by a text from the New Testament: “I piped to you, and ye did not dance.”

It symbolizes the despair of a woman who, finding that her appeal to the man’s higher nature has failed, turns away from him, and only the ensuing silence awakens him.

“I was impressed with the idea in this way,” said Borglum. “I went to a concert with a friend and heard Ysaye play one of Brahms’s compositions exquisitely. I was moved, delighted, enthusiastic, and I turned to my friend to discuss it with him. He was silent, the music had not touched him, we could not meet, and I was disappointed.”

A century later, most pilgrims to “St. John the Unfinished” scarcely glance at Borglum’s reverent, unironic angels, and no one remembers what they represent. At least two of the statues recall a week when angel faces roused pedantry, dogmatism, or scorn in otherwise decent people. Only Borglum, in the wake of his outburst, enshrined a contrary notion: that infamous people can bring about beautiful things.

In a season of hope, pause before Borglum’s angels, which a 1937 guidebook called “worthy of more than passing notice.” They may not move you, but when you know what they’re saying, they never seem silent again.

“What would an angel say? The devil wants to know.”

[During this busy season, I’m pleased to offer a “rerun” from December 2010.]


In the murk of winter, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine makes you wend your way backwards through time—across traces of terrible fire, beneath vaulting conceived Romanesque but raised Gothic, past altars that look far older than they are. In the end, behind the sanctuary, is the beginning: the cathedral’s oldest chapel, where the saints of the Eastern church—Origen, Ignatius, Chrysostom, Basil—reign in their respective niches.

Across from them, around the portal, stand columns of angels. Though stacked head to toe, they rarely catch the eye, and they’ve gone largely unnoticed since 1905, when for one week, all New York was called to ponder them.

Gutzon Borglum was 38 years old. He had trained in Paris with Rodin, and his public monuments would soon rise across the United States, but for now, fame eluded him. A decade away from failing to carve Robert E. Lee into Stone Mountain and two decades before sculpting Mount Rushmore, Borglum set his mind and hands alike to a modest task: the careful making of angels.

Strongly nativist even by the standards of his day, Borglum admired the Klan, and the world would soon deem him cranky, stubborn, and confrontational. Yet the sculptor was none of those things on October 4, 1905, when Episcopalian officials stopped by his studio to see his plaster casts:

The clergy were admiring them when the up-State clergyman stopped before two statues, and broke the silence with this:

“Whoever heard of a woman angel?”

The clergy gasped: then the truth dawned upon them. For hundreds of years all over the world art had been depicting angels as female and in no place in the Bible could it be ascertained that angels were other than male.

The questionable figures were two of twenty angels meant for the Chapel of St. Saviour: the Angel of the Resurrection and, more sensitively, the Angel of the Annunciation. “It seems to me,” Borglum would later say, “that it is repugnant to every gentlemanly sense to conceive of a man performing that role. The idea is such a delicate one that I made the figure of even the woman shrink back after she had told the Virgin, as if it was almost too sacred a thing for her to put into words.”

Angelology focused the minds of New Yorkers. After claiming in its report on Borglum that 15th-century painter Fra Angelico had depicted female angels, the New York Times drew the ire of an anonymous Jesuit:

A headline on Page 6 of your to-day’s issue tells the public “We’re Wrong About Angels.” Indeed you are—you.

It would be interesting to know of one period or one picture where art has “depicted women angels.” As for Fra Angelico da Fiseole, he was a follower of Church tradition and of scholastic philosophy: the former of these invariably represents angels as appearing in the likeness of young men, while the latter teaches that angels are really incorporeal and sexless. Christian art, conventionally obliged to choose a sex for its angels, followed the hint given by the language of the Church, which invariably makes the names of the angels masculine—”Sancte Michael, Sancte Gabriel, Sancte Raphael,” never “Sancta.”

A day later, the Times replied with a cheeky editorial:

If Mr. BORGLUM had taken the trouble to read his New Testament in Greek before putting hand to clay on his commission for angels he would have avoided this shocking error in sex. He would have noted that AGGELOS is neither feminine nor neuter, but masculine, and so your angel must show in some fashion that he belongs to the tyrant sex. Bootless the plea that HOMER makes the lovely Iris a messenger of the goddess, and the Edda introduces the Valkyrs, who are tomboys, if you will, but maidens ever fair, as messengers of Wotan. These be pagan toys with which a properly Christian sculptor has naught to do . . . The book—what does the book say? Well, it says that angels are masculine. There you are.

Of course there must be women angels in heaven, for even MOHAMED stocks his Paradise with houris, but they never come down . . . Very likely the sensibilities of lady angels are too fragile to stand the coarseness of human life. Suppose one of them should light upon a wife beater, or see a car on the Brooklyn Bridge with forty men seated and thirty women standing! . . . We believe that with the astuteness of the fair sex raised to a heavenly degree these lady angels leave such chores to the males.

As newspaper nationwide chattered about Borglum’s angels, Dr. William Reed Huntington, chairman of the cathedral’s Sculpture Committee and the most influential Episcopal priest of his generation, fielded odd questions:

“I think in sacred art, as far as I know, face and form never indicate either male or female, but I must confess I never saw an angel with whiskers.”

“Or a moustache, doctor?” he was asked.

“No. Nor a moustache,” he replied.

“From some source or other,” ran a coy report two days later in a Pennsylvania paper, “came a horrid rumor that Mr. Borglum intended to put whiskers on the faces of his angels, so that there could be no question hereafter as to their sex.”

Voices rose, less a choir than a din. The New York Christian Herald hinted that the debate was a silly one, for where does scripture consistently show that angels even have wings? The New York Evening Post cited Emanuel Swedenborg on the existence of female angels. At the behest of newsmen, Jewish Encyclopedia editor Joseph Jacobs sifted through the Kaballah.

Borglum’s supporters minimized what happened next. In 1952, his wife Mary lamented that the affair “put upon the sculptor a stigma, a mark of an evil temper, which he carried to the end of his life.” A sympathetic 1961 biography suggested that the incident never happened at all.

Yet press reports from the following week are clear: Gutzon Borglum smashed the two offending angels:

I felt like a murderer, but that was the only thing to do under the circumstances . . .

I didn’t want an express man to haul them away to be stored somewhere. I didn’t want any one to touch them except myself. So I simply broke them to pieces myself, and I should hate to tell you how I felt when I did it.

Oh yes, I am under contract to do that work for the Cathedral. The word came that the angels must be men, and men they shall be.

That gentle, elegant sculptures proceeded from Borglum’s hands speaks well only of his talent; art and virtue are often estranged. Still, the sculptor showed surprising grace a few days later when he explained his plan for the cathedral’s first chapel:

The group was described by a text from the New Testament: “I piped to you, and ye did not dance.”

It symbolizes the despair of a woman who, finding that her appeal to the man’s higher nature has failed, turns away from him, and only the ensuing silence awakens him.

“I was impressed with the idea in this way,” said Borglum. “I went to a concert with a friend and heard Ysaye play one of Brahms’s compositions exquisitely. I was moved, delighted, enthusiastic, and I turned to my friend to discuss it with him. He was silent, the music had not touched him, we could not meet, and I was disappointed.”

A century later, most pilgrims to “St. John the Unfinished” scarcely glance at Borglum’s reverent, unironic angels, and no one remembers what they represent. At least two of the statues recall a week when angel faces roused pedantry, dogmatism, or scorn in otherwise decent people. Only Borglum, in the wake of his outburst, enshrined a contrary notion: that infamous people can bring about beautiful things.

In a season of hope, pause before Borglum’s angels, which a 1937 guidebook called “worthy of more than passing notice.” They may not move you, but when you know what they’re saying, they never seem silent again.

“She shouldn’t oughta try to be that way…”

“She would rise before us then, a vision to win us, not repel: a lithe young slender figure, instinct with ‘the unbought grace of youth,’ dear and bonny and lovable, the face beautiful, and transfigured with the light of that lustrous intellect and the fires of that unquenchable spirit.”

So wrote Mark Twain about Joan of Arc, the sole figure who could make him mute his famous disdain for medievalism. “[S]he is easily and by far,” he swooned, “the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.” (Twain considered Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc his favorite of his own books; his heroine’s penchant for mottos—”Work! Stick to it!”—prompted Shaw to brand her “an American school teacher in armor.”)

It’s hard to overstate what a big deal Joan of Arc was in America at the dawn of the 20th century—but like most spirited forms of medievalism, Joanolatry first rose overseas. In 1870, when the French lost Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians, humiliated nationalists—when Europeans rouse medieval heroes from their graves, nationalism is usually the reason—made a symbol of the Maid of Orleans. American writers as early as John Daly Burk in 1798 cast Joan as an emblem of patriotism and pre-modern innocence, but by the late 19th century, European-influenced children’s books and chivalric romances about female heroes fired up men and women alike, as T.J. Jackson Lears points out:

The life of the chivalric warrior, male or female, ranged far outside the realm of reading circles and parlor chitchat. “Oh, to be a wild Kossack!” Emily Greene Balch wrote in her commonplace book after reading Taras Bulba. “Fight hard and drink hard and ride hard . . . Our clothes grow strait. Oh, for a horse between the knees, my blood boils, I want to fight, strain, wrestle, strike . . . To be brave and have it all known, to surpass and be proud, oh the splendor of it.”

Lears further argues that the American Cult of Joan was about more than escapism. For late 19th-century Americans, saints also “embodied instinctive communion with nature, simple faith unhampered by learning, and sexual purity. Personifying shibboleths of romantic liberal Protestantism, they entered the pantheon of the genteel tradition.”

World War I only gouged Joan further into American culture: She was immortalized on the Hudson in 1915, beloved by readers of Lucy Foster Madison’s 1918 novel (with its gorgeous Frank Schoonover illustrations), and brought to the screen by Cecil B. DeMille. Decades later, Joan was still sufficiently famous that OMD could write not one but two songs about her, while the Smiths could mention her and know that the image would stick.

According to the Book Haven, yesterday was the 600th birthday of Joan of Arc. Fortuitously, I learned this morning via D.C. neighbor and blogger George that the Joan of Arc statue in Meridian Hill Park, dedicated by President Harding on the saint’s birthday in 1922

…but (as this 2007 photo shows) disarmed for decades…

got her sword back just last month! (And got a full body scrub too.)

Congrats to locals, who reportedly lobbied the Park Service for two years to make this happen, and happy 600th to Miss of Arc, who was, as one of history’s greatest thinkers put it, “a most bodacious soldier and general.

“Well, it’s a long way to Richmond, rollin’ north on 95…”

Before the Civil War, Richmond was, in the words of historian Rollin Osterweis, the “intellectual headquarters” of the upper South. In days of yore, it was also, not by chance, the regional capital of trendy medievalism.

In a state formed by the manners and patterns of English life, the Richmond-based Southern Literary Messenger (edited by Edgar Allan Poe) reinforced the romanticism of its readers by treating them to Gothic yarns, the pageantry of Sir Walter Scott, the thought of Thomas Carlyle, and, in the twenty years before the Civil War, mountains of chivalric poems. The wealthy in and around antebellum Richmond adored chivalric pageants and tournaments; by the 1850s, writes Osterweis, “[i]nstead of longing awkwardly for the days of knighthood, the gentry is now convinced that it is living in them.”

This weekend, I was honored to be a guest at the annual James River Writers Conference, an event hosted by what may be the most hospitable writers’ group in the country. New to a city that was once obsessed with knighthood, courtliness, and English heritage, I took advantage of glorious weather to track down charming traces of old, neo-medieval Richmond.

Crammed between newer buildings on 5th Street is the Second Presbyterian Church, completed in 1848. Here, we’re told, the first pastor “proclaimed that he was ‘tired of Grecian temples with spires on them'” and “determined to build the first Gothic church in Richmond, a city noted for its classic Greek architecture. His building committee persuaded the noted New York Architect Minard Lafever, one of the leading masters of the Gothic Revival in America, to design the building.”

Ages later, the parking deck next door feebly acknowledges its Gothic elder.

Old buildings in Richmond favor classical and Federal styles intermingled with eclectic Victoriana, but on the eastern edge of Monument Avenue, Jeb Stuart, statuesque, presides over a Gothic revival.

It’s the right assignment for a general whose biographer calls him “the Confederacy’s knight-errant . . . Amid a slaughterhouse, he had embodied chivalry, clinging to the pageantry of a long-gone warrior. He crafted the image carefully, and the image befitted him. He saw himself as the Southern people envisaged him. They needed a knight; he needed to be that knight.”

Around the statue of Stuart rise the First English Lutheran Church (above), St. John’s UCC (below), and Grace Covenant Presbyterian (photo).

Here, the Gothic fought the Federal to a standstill, if only in facades.

On the north end of town, at Union Presbyterian Seminary, whimsy is the prime mover at Watts Hall, designed by Charles H. Read and built in 1897. Gleefully asymmetrical, Watts is one of those buildings that gets weirder the longer you look at it.

With its buttresses and blind triforium (those little rows of fake indented windows), its chapel could, at first glance, almost pass for medieval, but for that clock tower…

…and the quatrefoil-mad chimneys with wild Corinthian capitals.

Still, one terrific detail on the front of Watts Hall is all-American Gothic, perhaps befitting an age in which religious architecture is no longer a prominent carrier for medievalist ideas:

A lone grotesque, fleeing the scourge of theology.

“…to holes of their own making in the cracks within the walls…”

For four years, “Quid Plura?” has chased medievalist echoes in New Orleans—the statue of Ignatius Reilly, a shrine to a French saint, the glitter of Joan of Arc—as well as medieval-ish statuary in Cajun country and miscellaneous medievalism on the North Shore.

Yes, here there be saints—but where are the medieval monsters?

Earlier this week, on a hot afternoon, we sought to answer that question by turning to someone who slays them.

What say you, heroically-abdomened St. George in a hotel courtyard just outside the French Quarter?


George points west, so we’re off to the 16th Ward, where the beasts atop Tilton Memorial Hall at Tulane are timelessly monstrous rather than strictly medieval…

…but the alley behind the building hides a clutch of caudophagic dragons.



Heeding the call of the neo-Gothic, we take the streetcar east into Ward 12 and trudge down to the impressive St. Stephen Church on Napoleon Avenue…

…and when we look up…


…the neo-medieval mocks us.

Yet we cling to the hope of grotesquerie, just as two miles to the east, on Jackson Avenue in Ward 10, something clings to the side of a gutted 19th-century synagogue…

…a creature not quite medieval…

…but poised to petrify your inner ten-year-old.

“What would an angel say? The devil wants to know.”

In the murk of winter, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine makes you wend your way backwards through time—across traces of terrible fire, beneath vaulting conceived Romanesque but raised Gothic, past altars that look far older than they are. In the end, behind the sanctuary, is the beginning: the cathedral’s oldest chapel, where the saints of the Eastern church—Origen, Ignatius, Chrysostom, Basil—reign in their respective niches.

Across from them, around the portal, stand columns of angels. Though stacked head to toe, they rarely catch the eye, and they’ve gone largely unnoticed since 1905, when for one week, all New York was called to ponder them.

Gutzon Borglum was 38 years old. He had trained in Paris with Rodin, and his public monuments would soon rise across the United States, but for now, fame eluded him. A decade away from failing to carve Robert E. Lee into Stone Mountain and two decades before sculpting Mount Rushmore, Borglum set his mind and hands alike to a modest task: the careful making of angels.

Strongly nativist even by the standards of his day, Borglum admired the Klan, and the world would soon deem him cranky, stubborn, and confrontational. Yet the sculptor was none of those things on October 4, 1905, when Episcopalian officials stopped by his studio to see his plaster casts:

The clergy were admiring them when the up-State clergyman stopped before two statues, and broke the silence with this:

“Whoever heard of a woman angel?”

The clergy gasped: then the truth dawned upon them. For hundreds of years all over the world art had been depicting angels as female and in no place in the Bible could it be ascertained that angels were other than male.

The questionable figures were two of twenty angels meant for the Chapel of St. Saviour: the Angel of the Resurrection and, more sensitively, the Angel of the Annunciation. “It seems to me,” Borglum would later say, “that it is repugnant to every gentlemanly sense to conceive of a man performing that role. The idea is such a delicate one that I made the figure of even the woman shrink back after she had told the Virgin, as if it was almost too sacred a thing for her to put into words.”

Angelology focused the minds of New Yorkers. After claiming in its report on Borglum that 15th-century painter Fra Angelico had depicted female angels, the New York Times drew the ire of an anonymous Jesuit:

A headline on Page 6 of your to-day’s issue tells the public “We’re Wrong About Angels.” Indeed you are—you.

It would be interesting to know of one period or one picture where art has “depicted women angels.” As for Fra Angelico da Fiseole, he was a follower of Church tradition and of scholastic philosophy: the former of these invariably represents angels as appearing in the likeness of young men, while the latter teaches that angels are really incorporeal and sexless. Christian art, conventionally obliged to choose a sex for its angels, followed the hint given by the language of the Church, which invariably makes the names of the angels masculine—”Sancte Michael, Sancte Gabriel, Sancte Raphael,” never “Sancta.”

A day later, the Times replied with a cheeky editorial:

If Mr. BORGLUM had taken the trouble to read his New Testament in Greek before putting hand to clay on his commission for angels he would have avoided this shocking error in sex. He would have noted that AGGELOS is neither feminine nor neuter, but masculine, and so your angel must show in some fashion that he belongs to the tyrant sex. Bootless the plea that HOMER makes the lovely Iris a messenger of the goddess, and the Edda introduces the Valkyrs, who are tomboys, if you will, but maidens ever fair, as messengers of Wotan. These be pagan toys with which a properly Christian sculptor has naught to do . . . The book—what does the book say? Well, it says that angels are masculine. There you are.

Of course there must be women angels in heaven, for even MOHAMED stocks his Paradise with houris, but they never come down . . . Very likely the sensibilities of lady angels are too fragile to stand the coarseness of human life. Suppose one of them should light upon a wife beater, or see a car on the Brooklyn Bridge with forty men seated and thirty women standing! . . . We believe that with the astuteness of the fair sex raised to a heavenly degree these lady angels leave such chores to the males.

As newspaper nationwide chattered about Borglum’s angels, Dr. William Reed Huntington, chairman of the cathedral’s Sculpture Committee and the most influential Episcopal priest of his generation, fielded odd questions:

“I think in sacred art, as far as I know, face and form never indicate either male or female, but I must confess I never saw an angel with whiskers.”

“Or a moustache, doctor?” he was asked.

“No. Nor a moustache,” he replied.

“From some source or other,” ran a coy report two days later in a Pennsylvania paper, “came a horrid rumor that Mr. Borglum intended to put whiskers on the faces of his angels, so that there could be no question hereafter as to their sex.”

Voices rose, less a choir than a din. The New York Christian Herald hinted that the debate was a silly one, for where does scripture consistently show that angels even have wings? The New York Evening Post cited Emanuel Swedenborg on the existence of female angels. At the behest of newsmen, Jewish Encyclopedia editor Joseph Jacobs sifted through the Kaballah.

Borglum’s supporters minimized what happened next. In 1952, his wife Mary lamented that the affair “put upon the sculptor a stigma, a mark of an evil temper, which he carried to the end of his life.” A sympathetic 1961 biography suggested that the incident never happened at all.

Yet press reports from the following week are clear: Gutzon Borglum smashed the two offending angels:

I felt like a murderer, but that was the only thing to do under the circumstances . . .

I didn’t want an express man to haul them away to be stored somewhere. I didn’t want any one to touch them except myself. So I simply broke them to pieces myself, and I should hate to tell you how I felt when I did it.

Oh yes, I am under contract to do that work for the Cathedral. The word came that the angels must be men, and men they shall be.

That gentle, elegant sculptures proceeded from Borglum’s hands speaks well only of his talent; art and virtue are often estranged. Still, the sculptor showed surprising grace a few days later when he explained his plan for the cathedral’s first chapel:

The group was described by a text from the New Testament: “I piped to you, and ye did not dance.”

It symbolizes the despair of a woman who, finding that her appeal to the man’s higher nature has failed, turns away from him, and only the ensuing silence awakens him.

“I was impressed with the idea in this way,” said Borglum. “I went to a concert with a friend and heard Ysaye play one of Brahms’s compositions exquisitely. I was moved, delighted, enthusiastic, and I turned to my friend to discuss it with him. He was silent, the music had not touched him, we could not meet, and I was disappointed.”

A century later, most pilgrims to “St. John the Unfinished” scarcely glance at Borglum’s reverent, unironic angels, and no one remembers what they represent. At least two of the statues recall a week when angel faces roused pedantry, dogmatism, or scorn in otherwise decent people. Only Borglum, in the wake of his outburst, enshrined a contrary notion: that infamous people can bring about beautiful things.

In a season of hope, pause before Borglum’s angels, which a 1937 guidebook called “worthy of more than passing notice.” They may not move you, but when you know what they’re saying, they never seem silent again.

“I’ll build you a kingdom in that house on the hill…”

Around the cathedral, few creatures say what they actually mean. When the lovelorn cicada on the south nave needed advice on impressing the silent insect with whom he shares a buttress, I shrugged and loaned him a book on ghazals. Cicadas are well suited to the form: They respect tradition, they’re enigmatic by nature, and they know how to flutter indecisively around a perfectly bright idea.

GHAZAL

The scullions ma’am’d and sir’d to the Abbasids;
The lusts of locusts whirred through the Abbasids.

Salaam, she sighed. A serpent shed a city,
And in, a starving bird, flew the Abbasids.

In wine, in witless words, in bloodshot mornings,
The gift of gardens blurred to the Abbasids.

A general’s eye surveyed the rheumy rooftops,
And frozen by a word grew the Abbasids.

You sang, “the bow his brow, his lashes lances…”
Our dawn campaign referred to the Abbasids.

“It’s cool,” the in-crowd says, “to dig this chanting.
A ban would be absurd to the Abbasids.”

Her angel raises ribbons, blue and scarlet,
But wasting in the third queue? The Abbasids.

I studied senseless serifs on your postcard,
A lore I long preferred to the Abbasids.

Spines align. He scans her posture sidewise:
El Cid, Beginner’s Urdu, The Abbasids…

The old cicada sang, his soul emerging,
And yet you never heard. Do the Abbasids?


(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab.)

“Don’t leave me hanging in a city so dead…”

Sometimes gargoyles are so high up—in this case, nearly 200 feet—that few people see them, and nobody hears them. Alas.

On either side the arches fly,
The buttress-blocks that half-imply
A sort of creamy stonework thigh,
And thro’ the calf and knee-crook high
Soar carven brutes profuse; a
Docent notes them, up and down,
Pent-up pilgrims crane and frown
’Neath the nag of no renown,
The southwest-tower Medusa.

A tourist twirls, a ballerina
Sensing o’er her Neutrogena
Grills that send a scent subpoena
From a cactus-themed cantina,
Corn-and-meat pupusa;
Bus-groups pained by prickly towers
Overlooking Gothic powers
Seek instead tequila sours
Ere southwest-tower Medusa.

Still, she sneers by day and night,
A myth amasked in aspish fright,
Damning each commercial flight,
Heedless of the blear and blight
She blusters to induce; a-
Ware of what her curse may be,
Alone she seetheth steadily,
Spitting on the bourgeoisie,
The southwest-tower Medusa.

And, skirting ’round her mirror’s haze,
Limestone saints avert their gaze,
Lest a glance condone her craze:
A kraken kind she howls to raise
To shake her prison loose; a
Waste, when distant dumpsters crash,
Reaping reams of beer-dark trash.
She hath no hope for titans’ clash,
The southwest-tower Medusa.

Like a queen of ninth-grade spites
Brooding on imagined slights,
Texting vapid acolytes,
Curls a-twirl through tween-dazed nights,
She taps jejune abuse; a
Tome she scans with deep’ning dread;
No sandaled Zeus-brat hunts her head.
“I am half sick of Bulfinch,” said
The southwest-tower Medusa.

She’s left to wail, she’s left to loom,
She sets her face to scowl and fume,
She sees the horrid garden bloom,
She sees no glad, galumphing groom
To suffer and seduce; a-
Las, no roof-beam waits to rise,
Nor any man half Ares’ size.
“No curse has come upon me!” cries
The southwest-tower Medusa.

There is no river, chain, nor boat,
No pithy rhyme for profs to quote,
No knight to heed her final note;
For her, no verse will e’er be wrote
By laureates obtuse; a
Captive crone, denied release,
She envies maids whose poems cease.
No tender curse can promise peace
To southwest-tower Medusa.

No one wonders, “What is here?”
High above, some starry sphere
Screeches thro’ another year;
Now the dusk-light drowns in drear
And failing, fades to fuchsia;
For no one mused a little space,
And no one praised her fang-bit face,
And none of flesh will e’er embrace
The southwest-tower Medusa.




(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tag.)

“Before you were born, dude, when life was great…”

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring crawfish, bearded with moss…

“But Jeff,” I hear yon straw man cry, “it’s been ages since you reaffirmed your obsession with literary and quasi-medieval statuary!” Indeed, the greatest truths are often the most lamentable. So look who reared his head (and a fragment of torso) today along the bayou in St. Martinville, Louisiana: None other than “Hexameter Hank” Longfellow, author of Evangeline, the epic poem that made Cajun history hip.

In St. Martinville, Longfellow keeps watchs over the “Evangeline Oak,” which offers ample shade just down the road from the Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site and a few paces from the lovely Acadian Memorial and Museum.

A block away, in the cemetery of the “mother church” of the Cajuns, is Evangeline herself, looking more sanguine than I’d be after decades of roaming North America in the name of deathless love. As bestsellers go, the poem that bears Evangeline’s name was the Twilight of yesteryear, but these days she gets fewer visitors.

St. Martinville boasts a population of 6,989, but half of those residents appear to be statues. In front of the church stands A.M. Jan, the 19th-century pastor, on a pedestal that tells his story in Latin.

Also honored in the town square is this dapper Attakapa Indian. He’s been here since 1961.

The interior of the church—”it is just the same as when it was built,” a plaque insists, “having been repaired but not changed”—is naturally full of old statues, too many to name.

But let’s not overlook two “Quid Plura?” favorites:

Noah’s wife…

…and our old pal from New Orleans, St. Roch.

Mais où est le patron?

Aha! Here’s St. Martin of Tours, inventing the word “chapel” in front of the old presbytère.

Alas, my camera fizzled before I could get a picture of St. Martinville’s one truly unmissable statue, which depicts Charlemagne engaged in mortal combat with a giant crawfish. I’m sorry you won’t be able to see it, but trust me, dear reader: It was awesome.

“Moja droga, ja cię kocham…”

When I was growing up, our household recognized only one Polish prince, but yesterday in Central Park I spotted another royal Pole who’s certainly worthy to carve the Easter ham.


That’s King Władysław II Jagiełło, who (the monument tells us) was king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania, “founder of a free union of the peoples of East Central Europe” and “victor over the Teutonic aggressors at Grunwald, July 15, 1410.”


The “Teutonic aggressors” reference was timely: this statue greeted visitors to the Polish pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. In April of that year, Polish dignitaries at the fair were already worried about a German invasion.

Just weeks after Germany rolled into Poland, Mayor La Guardia was publicly lobbying to keep this statue in New York and hoped to acquire the awesome medieval-ish entrance to the Polish pavilion, a 141-foot tower made of 1,200 gilded shields.

Incidentally, when the old men in my family got this look on their faces, we tended to keep them away from the cutlery.

In 1940, the plan was to raise money to keep the king and his tower in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, but Poland donated the statue to New York City in 1945. King Jagiełło ended up in Central Park, where he faces west across the Turtle Pond.

I don’t know what happened to the king’s mighty medieval-ish shield tower, but I’ll have to find out later, because right now there’s ham slabs on the table, and they’re not gonna eat themselves.

Happy Easter!