Archive for ‘New York’


“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.

“The walls are white, and in the night…”

“Perhaps I have created a medieval study,” wondered Flannery O’Connor in 1960 after a professor of medieval literature penned a piece in a Catholic magazine that likened her novel The Violent Bear It Away to the movie The Seventh Seal. Sharing the essay with a friend, O’Connor was bemused: “Which reminds me, have you seen any films by this man Ingmar Bergman? People tell me they are mighty fine & that I would like them. They too are apparently medieval.”

I wonder, then, what O’Connor, a rigorous Catholic, would have made of the news that the Episcopalians just made her a literary saint:

This week, Flannery O’Connor was inducted into the American Poets Corner at St. John the Divine, the “only shrine to American literature in the country” (or so a church representative told me). Upon entering the cathedral for the small induction ceremony, attendees were greeted by two gigantic, sparkling sculptures suspended from the ceiling—they are phoenixes, part of an installation by the Chinese artist Xu Bing, but at first glance you might mistake them for peacocks, like the ones that O’Connor raised on her family’s Georgia farm, Andalusia . . . Those who spoke during the ceremony stood in front of a shining cross, towering choir stalls, and giant pillars illuminated with glowing yellow lights. A booming echo made them sound like somewhat unintelligible voices from beyond. The effect was fitting, evoking simultaneously O’Connor’s keen sense of the ominous, the numinous, and the ironic.

I don’t know if O’Connor visited the magnificent cathedral when she lived in New York City for a while in 1949. As a Catholic, she might have found modern Protestant cathedral-building a marvelous, misguided quest for transcendence, but the vast Gothic interior also might have engaged her intellect and gladdened her soul. After all, O’Connor grew up across the street from a gargoyle-festooned cathedral in Savannah and later lived on a farm called Andalusia, a name she encouraged her mother to restore. It’s been a while since she was seen only as a “Southern Gothic” writer; she also deserves to be remembered as a committed American medievalist.

By the time O’Connor attended college in 1942, her medievalism was apparent. She wrote poetry only briefly, but her later dismissal of her own juvenalia is knowing and sly. “All of my poems sounded like ‘Miniver Cheevy,'” she quipped, recalling the pathetic drunk in E.A. Robinson’s 1910 poem who wishes he’d been born in an age of chivalry. As an adult, she had little interest in romance and legend: Her philosophy professor would recall how much she hated the irreligious dismissal of the Middle Ages in the textbook he assigned, how passionately she studied the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, and how keen she was to debate with him when he argued, from an anthropological perspective, that medieval Christianity was polytheistic.

“She knew Aquinas in detail, was amazingly well read in earlier philosophy, and developed into a first-rate ‘intellectual’ along with her other accomplishments,” George Beiswanger later wrote. “It soon became clear to me that she was a ‘born’ writer and that she was going that way.” Beiswanger took such pleasure in their sparring that he recommended her to his alma mater, the University of Iowa, and helped her land a scholarship for graduate school.

In 1948, while wandering the grounds of Yaddo, O’Connor described herself to other artists at the colony as “thirteenth century” as she immersed herself in a book on scholasticism and medieval art by French Thomist Jacques Maritain. “Do not make the absurd attempt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian”—she underlined that passage in Maritain’s book, and when she visited the Cloisters during her stint in New York City the following year, she was amazed to find support for Maritain’s exhortation in a Virgin and Child statue that showed both figures laughing—”not smiling,” she emphasized to a friend, “laughing.”

While writing her first novel, O’Connor read the lives of three female saints—Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, and Teresa of Avila—and was irked when the public found the resulting book pessimistic rather than comic. “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist,” she told a friend, “whereas I would like to create the impression over the television that I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” Fascinated and challenged by the prolific saint, she joked about applying Thomist principles to the least events in daily life, including her mother scolding her to go to bed during her nightly readings:

If my mother were to come in during this process and say, “Turn off that light. It’s late,” I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, “On the contrary, I answer that the light, being external and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,” or some such thing.

Soon after she was diagnosed with the lupus that would destroy her kidneys, O’Connor made two commitments: the first, to write like mad; the second, less formally, to St. Thomas Aquinas himself. In 1953, O’Connor purchased the 690-page Modern Library volume of selections from his work—and settled in for the rest of her life.

As she hobbled around Andalusia on the crutches she called “flying buttresses” and immersed herself nightly in Thomistic theology, O’Connor did what other medievalists do, from malevolent nationalists to benign reenactors: She redacted the Middle Ages down to the aspects that gave her full purpose and strength.

As for being enshrined as a poet by Episcopalians in an unfinished Gothic cathedral in Manhattan, O’Connor was too Southern to have told them that she was anything but flattered but also too Catholic not to have issued gleeful theological challenges to priests who would have stammered and sought for rejoinders in vain. Then, in private, mindful of her favorite statues, she would have laughed, and let her amusement linger long after the light went out.

“We’re just fol-low-ing ancient his-to-ry…”

Every so often, I stumble onto some relic of American medievalism that seems charming but inconsequential—until a bit of digging brings out something more.

Behold: “I dreamed I was a medieval maiden in my Maidenform bra,” an ad that ran in magazines in 1959 and 1960. (Click here to see it larger.) The ad is based on the late-15th-century “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries designed in Paris, woven in Flanders, and now on display at the Musée National du Moyen Âge in Cluny. Five of the tapestries are devoted to the senses; a sixth tapestry has been variously interpreted.

Maidenform’s “I Dreamed…” campaign, which began in 1949 and ran for 20 years, was apparently so successful that it’s still studied in business schools. The other ads weren’t medievally themed, but they all showed a shirtless woman in some professional or historical setting. The “medieval maiden” ad stands out, though, for its fidelity to its source.

Place the ad and the tapestry side by side and you can see how little got removed (other than the maiden’s blouse).

The heraldic symbols on the banner (and on the unicorn’s little Thundershirt-shield) are intact, even though they’re meaningless now. The grimacing lion is gone; modern people might have have been distracted by him or found him comical. The woman no longer holds the unicorn’s horn but caresses it near its mouth. She’s also been decked out in a hat on loan, I would guess, from the neighborhood gnome.

Maidenform was determined to portray not just some fantasy scene, but a real and very specific medieval work. Why?

For one thing, the decade leading up to this ad was florid with chivalry, at least at the movies: Rogues of Sherwood Forest, Ivanhoe, Richard and the Crusaders, Knights of the Round Table, Prince Valiant, Lady Godiva, The Court Jester, Saint Joan, The Vikings, and at least two TV versions of A Connecticut Yankee. (With The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring, Ingmar Bergman cast a pall over these Technicolor revels, but he was an anomaly.) It’s no wonder that a couple years later, the press was quick to cast John F. Kennedy’s candidacy and presidency in terms of fair ladies and storybook heroes—even if there’d be no “Camelot” talk until after his assassination.

But maybe the Maidenform maiden is more of a high-culture dream. At the end of the 1950s, tapestries were big news: A decade earlier, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had hosted a show about French tapestries from 1375 to the present, and in 1958 and 1959 the Cloisters made two major tapestry acquisitions. In 1959, the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired several tapestries about the exploits of Constantine, while the Brooklyn Museum showed off Norwegian tapestries from the 16th through 18th centuries.

(…and curiously, the New York Times reported in May 1958 that sculptor Elbert Weinberg had installed a terra-cotta lady-and-unicorn in the lobby of 405 Park Avenue.)

In 1959, American medievalism was enjoying a sort of historicist autumn. Renaissance fairs were a few years off and Tolkienesque fantasy had yet to go mainstream, so when people thought of the Middle Ages, they imagined the tidy past they enjoyed in movies—and, apparently, in magazine ads.  It took me only a few minutes to find several advertisements from 1958 to 1960 that make the Middle Ages look as pleasant as it did in the movies of the time.

Plymouth Gin evoked jousting to invite Americans to join an international band of drinkers, pharma giant Parke-Davis paid tribute to hospitals in 12th-century France, Chivas Regal reveled in Scottish heritage, and the Grant Pulley and Hardware Corporation, makers of sliding doors, assumed you would know what a “portcullis” was. The medieval people in these ads—knights, nurses, architects—set precedents, and served as examples.

When Austrian historian Herwig Wolfram considered American medievalism in the 1970s, he saw more than folly. “What might sometimes appear to a European as slightly comical is nevertheless an expression of astonishing vitality,” he wrote. “And what many a dry pedant might dismiss as low-brow is in reality a kind of learning experience on a level different from that to which most Europeans are accustomed.” Interweaving high and not-so-high culture, the Maidenform ad shows the mass appeal of America’s medieval dream, even if nobody’s heeding the small print: “The past was never quite this perfect!”

“Cool winds wash down your hope, and you slipped…”

When I was teaching, and books like Beowulf and The Faerie Queene hove into view, my students gamely kicked around a question: Does America have an epic?

Lonesome Dove. The Godfather. Roots. Each book or movie they floated was a lengthy, multigenerational take on an ethnic or regional experience. Other students brought up Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, and one of them argued, with rare passion, for Stephen King’s Dark Tower/Gunslinger series. In the end, no one was satisfied. Ours, they sighed, is an epic-less nation.

But if we don’t currently have an epic, the people who will live here someday may. That’s the premise of Marly Youmans’ eerie and beautiful Thaliad, a 24-book poem about seven children who survive a fiery apocalypse—and how one of them becomes the founding matriarch of a lakeside tribe in upstate New York.

Recounted 67 years later by Emma, a teenaged librarian who roves the wastes with sword and gun in search of unrescued books, the Thaliad fuses several out-of-vogue elements—formalist verse, narrative poetry, classical epic—to a familiar science-fiction trope. What grows from this grafting is a weird, fresh, magical thing: the story of a new world rooted in the ingenuity and optimism of “one who / Was ordinary as a stone or stem / Until the fire came and called her name.”

Like any classical epic, the Thaliad states its purpose: “to make from these paper leaves / A book to tell and bind the hardest times / That ever were in all of history.” Emma even invokes a muse, but in a nice teen-angst twist, she prays for inspiration from the dream husband she’s sure she’ll never have. “And so I am now married to the quill,” she vows with the melodramatic certainty of youth, recording the origins of her people in a tale that glows with mystical visions, prophetic messengers, and the hard bargain of a divine covenant.

What makes the Thaliad most compelling and real is a certain cheekiness in Marly Youmans’ choice of setting. The children who survive the unexplained holocaust migrate north, as Youmans did, and end up where she lives: Cooperstown, New York, with its nearby Glimmerglass Historic District and Kingfisher Tower, a (yes!) neo-Gothic folly on Otsego Lake. What fantasist hasn’t looked around and wondered what familiar streets and settings might someday become? In that sense, Thaliad recalls Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, and Youmans is at least as skilled as Le Guin at using mythic elements to solidify and universalize a story, from hints of Beowulf in the raising of funeral mounds to fateful echoes of Ophelia and the Lady of Shalott.

Because epic must be larger than life, Thalia and her fellow children are preternaturally articulate, as is their historian-poet, sometimes in amusing ways. When Emma praises Thalia’s ancestry, we learn that her mother was a doctor, while her father

           was unknown, donor of seed,
Impregnator without shape, a formless
Father of the mind who though a mortal
Receives immortal honors from our kind.

By crafting lofty language to describe an immaculate scientific conception, Youmans reminds Thaliad readers that we’re seeing everything in this poem through the eyes of a teenager and the distorting lens of epic—but also that we’re half-blind to the wonders of our own world. Three generations on, Emma doesn’t think much of us:

Then beauty was abolished by the state
And colleges of learning stultified,
Hewing to a single strand of groupthink.
It was a time bewitched, when devils ruled,
When ancient ice fields melted, forests burned,
When sea tossed up its opal glitterings
Of unknown fish and dragons of the deep,
When giant moth and demon rust consumed,
And every day meant more and more to buy.
Some people here and there lived otherwise,
But no one asked them for any wisdom,
And no one looked to their authority,
For none they had, nor were they like to have
The same—no one expects the end of things
To come today, although it must some day,
And so no one expected the great flares…

Fortunately, Youmans doesn’t rest on easy social criticism. Through unsettling depictions of cruelty, negligence, and loss, she argues that despair in times of horror is a choice, not an inevitability. Even as the Thalians struggle to preserve scraps of civilization, the stars over Cooperstown offer another chance for humanity to get things right. Keen to reinvent the constellations, Thalian poets gaze at a sky

Where unfamiliar constellations rule
A dazzling zodiac—the Nine-tailed Cat,
The Throne of Fire, the Fount of Anguishing,
Un-mercy’s Seat. I might go cruelly on,
But I have brooded for too long on fall
And desolation, hidden history
Of world’s end, thing unwritten in the books,
Its causes and its powers scribed on air
And seen out of a corner of the eye
Or not at all. Better to dream and say
That sparking zodiac shows sympathy
For trial and weariness, presenting Hope
In Silver Feathers, Gabriel in Light,
The Mother’s Arms, the Father’s Sailing Boat,
The Seven Triumphant Against the Waste.

To Youmans, whether you like what you see when you look heavenward depends entirely on what you want to see.

Youmans’ hopeful epic has a recent precedent: Frederick Turner’s brilliant science-fiction poem The New World, in which the learned citizens of a 24th-century Ohio republic fend off fanatics in bordering lands. Maybe two poets don’t represent a trend, but a few clever souls have begun to look beyond short, personal lyrics to rediscover the potential of narrative poetry. Christopher Logue’s retelling of Homer is one of the coolest long poems in decades, and Dana Gioia’s most recent book includes a ghost story in syllabic verse.

By writing an epic, Youmans is endorsing a poetic renaissance that has its detractors. Since the 1980s, dyspeptic critics have argued that neoformal poetry is too obsessed with poetry itself (at the expense, they say, of looking out at the world) and that neoformalism “decontextualizes” poetry. Of course, people who point out the same problem with the past century of visual art get dismissed as reactionary cranks, so I’m content to mutter “de gustibus…” and move on. Youmans’ poem is a call to restore old and beautiful forms of literature—that’s what Emma, librarian and historian, literally does when she speaks of the past:

It was the age beyond the ragged time
When all that matters grew disorderly—
When artworks changed, expressive, narcissist,
And then at last became just tedious,
A beetle rattling in a paper cup,
Incessant static loop of nothingness,
When poems sprang and shattered into shards,
And then became as dull as newsprint torn
And rearranged in boredom by a child
Leaning on a window seat in the rain.

Even so, the Thaliad isn’t just literature about literature. By building a plausible world in fiction, Youmans, like any good science-fiction writer, makes us more aware of the weirdness of the real world, where we should look for life in all sorts of seemingly dead things:

We found a sourwood tree that had been killed
By something, but the leaves still drooped in place,
Though every one had faded into brown.
When we came closer, leaves burst into wings—
The tree was green, the death was butterflies,
Alive and pouring like a waterfall
But upside down from us…

Not remotely a formalist novelty, the Thaliad is a remarkable book about surviving a crisis of faith.

Although the Thaliad runs only 102 pages, it’s a rich poem, and I couldn’t find room in this post for half of my notes. Detecting influences ranging from Milton to Cavafy to A.A. Milne, I reacted just as Dale Favier did:

But having finished, I turn at once to the beginning, to read it again, which is of course what one always does with a genuine epic. They begin in the middle of things because they understand that everything is in the middle of things: they’re structured as a wheel, and its first revolution is only to orient ourselves.

If they’re willing to take a chance, fantasy and science-fiction fans and even the “young adult” crowd might all find much to love here. The Thaliad is rare proof that verse need not be difficult or obscure—and that even now, narrative poetry can still leave readers, like Thalian children eyeing strangers in their orchard, “[e]nchanted into stillness by surprise.”

“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.

“River, I’ve never seen the sea…”

“The evening passed delightfully: we sat out in the moonlight on the piazza, and strolled along the banks of the Patapsco; after which I went to bed, had a sweet night’s sleep, and dreamt I was in Mahomet’s Paradise.”

Washington Irving romanticized his life. In an 1854 letter to his niece, he even found whimsy on the Patapsco River in Maryland, where he stayed at the home of John Pendleton Kennedy: Whig politician, Secretary of the Navy, Maryland Congressman, and a man immersed in the pop-medieval daydreams of his age.

No one reads Kennedy’s 1832 book Swallow Barn anymore, and the author’s own description of it isn’t likely to bring readers back: “There is a rivulet of story wandering through a broad meadow of episode. Or, I might truly say, it is a book of episodes, with an occasional digression into the plot.” Kennedy loved Irving’s Bracebridge Hall, in which an American visitor describes an English manor through a series of character sketches and anecdotes, and he mimics it in Swallow Barn: a northerner visits his cousin’s plantation on the James River in Virginia and describes the place in anecdotal fits and starts. (Swallow Barn so closely resembles Irving’s style that when it was published under the name “Mark Littleton,” the public assumed Irving has simply adopted a coy new nom de plume.)

Medievalism is rampant in Swallow Barn. In his prologue, Kennedy cites the Morte d’Arthur. He likens a miller to a Robin Hood character, an old slave to an ancient crusading knight, and a group of pedantic Virginia lawyers to an Anglo-Saxon “wittanagemote.”

As it turns out, the early 19th-century Virginians of Swallow Barn are as obsessed with the Middle Ages as the narrator is. Here’s Prudence Meriwether, the plantation owner’s sister:

There is a dash of the picturesque in the character of this lady. Towards sunset she is apt to stray forth amongst the old oaks, and to gather small bouquets of wild flowers in the pursuit of which she contrives to get into very pretty attitudes; or she falls into raptures at the shifting tints of the clouds on the western sky, and produces quite a striking pictorial effect by the skillful choice of a position which shows her figure in strong relief against the evening light. And then in her boudoir may be found exquisite sketches from her pencil, of forms of love and beauty, belted and buckled knights, old castles and pensive ladies, Madonnas and cloistered nuns,—the offspring of an artistic imagination heated with romance and devotion.

Next we meet Ned Hazard, a 33-year-old Princeton dropout who stands to inherit Swallow Barn:

A few years ago he was seized with a romantic fever which manifested itself chiefly in a conceit to visit South America, and play knight-errant in the quarrel of the Patriots. It was the most sudden and unaccountable thing in the world; for no one could trace the infection to any probable cause;—still, it grew upon Ned’s fancy, and appeared in so many brilliant phrases, that there was no getting it out of his brain . . . However, he came home the most disquixotted cavalier that ever hung up his shield at the end of a scurvy crusade…

“His mind,” Kennedy insists, “is still a fairy land, inhabited by pleasant and conceited images, winged charmers, laughing phantoms, and mellow spectres of frolic.”

The object of Ned Hazard’s chivalrous amour is Bel Tracy, who’s so obsessed with Sir Walter Scott that she uses his novels to try to teach herself hawking:

In her pursuit of this object she had picked up some gleanings of the ancient lore that belonged to the art; and, fantastic as it may seem, began to think that her unskillful efforts would be attended with success . . . A silver ring, or varvel, was fitted to one leg, and on it was engraved the name of her favorite, copied from some old tale, ‘Fairbourne,’ with the legend attached, ‘I live in my lady’s grace.’ I know not what other foppery was expended upon her minion; but I will warrant he went forth in as conceited array as his ‘lady’s grace’ could devise for him. A lady’s favorite is not apt to want gauds and jewels.

By the time Swallow Barn winds down and “Mark Littleton” heads north, Ned Hazard survives a chivalric duel (a fistfight); slaves decked out to resemble “troubadours and minnesingers” tell ghost stories about nearby Goblin Swamp; and the narrator likens himself to Gregory of Tours and William of Malmesbury and quotes Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale.”

In an introduction to the most recent reprinting of Swallow Barn, Lucinda H. MacKethan writes that Kennedy “manages merrily both to revere and to ridicule almost all of the Old South’s icons,” adding that reviewers disagreed on whether the book was a faithful depiction of Southern plantation life or blatant satire. I think it’s both: Swallow Barn shows a South in which overprivileged plantation-dwellers are so immersed in chivalric tales that they come to inhabit a shared medieval delusion.

When Washington Irving visited John Pendelton Kennedy in Maryland in 1854, life had been good to both authors, but especially to Kennedy. He had married Elizabeth Gray, daughter of textile baron Edward Gray, and moved into the Gray mansion. Gray liked to see himself as a feudal lord as he surveyed his factories on the Patapsco, a fancy Irving apparently shared.

In an 1854 letter to Elizabeth Gray Kennedy after returning home to Tarrytown, Irving let his inner medievalist romp:

 I envy Kennedy the job of building that tower, if he has half the relish that I have for castle building—air castles, or any other. I should like nothing better than to have plenty of money to squander on stone and mortar, and to build chateaux along the beautiful Patapsco with the noble stone which abounds there; but I would first blow up all the cotton mills (your father’s among the number), and make picturesque ruins of them; and I would utterly destroy the railroad; and all of the cotton lords should live in baronial castles on the cliffs, and the cotton spinners should be virtuous peasantry of both sexes, in silk skirts and small clothes and straw hats, with long ribbands, and should do nothing but sing songs and choruses, and dance on the margin of the river.

Only Washington Irving could look past textile mills and see a medieval peasant fantasy—but as Paul J. Travers points out in The Patapsco: Baltimore’s River of History, “Irving’s words were prophetic”: A great flood in 1868 washed away part of the Gray mansion, Kennedy’s personal library was ruined, and the family was forced to move. (Elizabeth Kennedy kept the factory going for 20 more years—until another devastating flood.)

Today, if you hack through the weeds between down Ellicott City and Patapsco State Park, you can walk in the footsteps of a wide-eyed Washington Irving…

…and spot the “picturesque ruins” Irving joked that he wanted to see. They’re now monuments to a forgotten writer and a half-remembered natural disaster.

Nearby, you’ll find more recent wrecks that put Irving’s romanticism in perspective.

Shops on Main Street in Ellicott City now sell plastic swords, pirate gear, and Viking hats alongside antique shops that burnish the relics of Irving and Kennedy’s age. On the outskirts of town, Marylanders hike and bike; some latter-day rustics fish along the river’s edge. Whether you see timeless fantasies here, as Irving did, depends on your affinity with Swallow Barn’s Bel Tracy, who found “something pleasant in the idea of moated castles, and gay knights, and border feuds, and roundelays under one’s window, and lighted halls.”

Mark Twain saw something else in Southern medievalism: a sort of mass insanity, a “maudlin Middle-Age romanticism” that’s still more tenacious in America than he ever foresaw. Even now, many Americans would answer Twain in the same tone Bel Tracy uses to scold her cousin: “Pshaw!…You haven’t one spark of genuine romance in your whole composition.” When a 19th-century New Yorker can find Virginia medievalism on the banks of a Maryland river, I’m not sure both notions aren’t right.

“The stairs creak as you sleep, it’s keeping me awake…”

“How solemn and thrilling the scene as we anchored at night at the foot of those mountains, clothed with overhanging forests; and every thing grew dark and mysterious…”

So wrote an awed teenaged Manhattanite in 1800 about his first voyage up the Hudson River. If you ever find yourself in Tarrytown, New York, and if you can find (as I did this morning) a brief break in your business there, stroll down the street and visit Sunnyside, the late-life home of the wide-eyed mythologist who likened the Hudson to the Rhine: Washington Irving, one of America’s great unacknowledged medievalists.

It’s fitting to poke around Sunnyside on Columbus Day. Biographer Andrew Burstein notes that Irving’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Columbus went through 175 editions between 1828 and 1900, and that “[a]ccording to a recent survey of the contents of American libraries, rural and urban alike, in the mid-nineteenth century, Irving’s Columbus was the most commonly owned book. It undeniably influenced how American schoolchildren were taught their country’s origins for the balance of the nineteenth century.” As Nancy Marie Brown recently mentioned, Irving’s book almost certainly popularized the misperception that medieval people believed the world was flat.

Washington Irving loved the Middle Ages. In 1804, at 21, he admired Gothic architecture in France, and he was apparently so enamored of St. Agatha’s Cathedral in Sicily that while he gaped at the place, someone picked his pocket. He later included references to Charlemagne in his satirical “Knickerbocker History” of New York City, and he also whipped up a scene where one of his Dutch forefathers, Oloffe, has a medieval-style dream vision of Saint Nicholas, the city’s patron.

Irving’s Sketch-Book (most famous today for the German-inspired “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) also features a dream vision in which Irving’s alter ego, Geoffrey Crayon, visits the library at Westminster Abbey, where medieval books literally speak to him. Irving’s 1821 novel Bracebridge Hall, with its character sketches of squires, old yeomen, and romantic lovers, teems with a love of medieval tradition and even includes a chivalric digression: “The Student of Salamanca.” Irving also adored medieval Spain, romanticizing history and legend in Tales of the Alhambra and Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to call Washington Irving one of America’s first pop-medievalists—although interestingly, he didn’t use the word “medieval.”

In “Medievalism: Its Linguistic History in Nineteenth Century Britain,” Clare A. Simmons notes that Washington Irving avoided the term “Middle Ages,” probably because it was then associated with Roman Catholicism—but the word “medieval” never leaks from Irving’s pen either. Instead, he opts for phrases like “olden times,” “days of yore,” and “the age of chivalry.” The word “medieval” was in currency in England at least as early as 1827, but if Irving heard it during his extensive time abroad, he doesn’t seem to have brought it home with him.

Irving bought and moved to Sunnyside in 1835. Around that time, he abandoned medieval subjects and wrote books about America: A Tour of the Prairies; the Western novel Astoria; the romance The Adventures of Captain Bonneville; and a five-volume biography of George Washington.

Still, Sunnyside reflects Irving’s continued interest in a romanticized Middle Ages, from its “Italian Gothic” piazza…

…to the “Spanish Tower,” which I image Irving found very olden-timey…

…to the ice house, designed by Irving himself in what a placard calls “a whimsical fashion conveying the look of a small Gothic chapel.”

Irving died in 1859, late enough to see the early medievalization of the Hudson Valley at nearby estates such as Lyndhurst but too soon to see just how nuts Americans would get about Gothic architecture. Many castle-like estates loom over the Hudson, including one built in Tarrytown between 1897 and 1910, just three miles from Irving’s home. Some of them have fallen into disrepair.

Irving would have enjoyed seeing medievalist follies sprout like mushrooms from New York cliffsides, but as his lively era recedes into obscurity, I wonder what he would have thought of his own reputation, if not his influence, becoming as much a part of “days of yore” and “olden times” as the real Middle Ages themselves.

Or maybe the era he never named helped prepare him for that: “And all for what? to occupy an inch of dusty shelf—to have the title of their works read now and then in a future age, by some drowsy churchman or casual straggler like myself; and in another age to be lost, even to remembrance. Such is the amount of this boasted immortality.”

“Won’t you fly across that ocean, take a train on down…”

“The origin of our city will be buried in eternal oblivion,” wrote Washington Irving in his satirical History of New York, the 1809 book that made the 26-year-old Manhattanite one of America’s first literary celebs. Two centuries later, Irving’s “Knickerbocker History” is by turns funny, baffling, and obscure, but what intrigued me was how full of Charlemagne it is:

The origin of our city will be buried in eternal oblivion, and even the names and achievements of Wouter Van Twiller, Wilhelmus Kleft, and Peter Stuyvesant, be enveloped in doubt and fiction, like those of Romulus and Remus, of Charlemagne, King Arthur, Rinaldo, and Godfrey of Bologne.

As it turns out, Irving was a bit of a Charlemagne buff. Elsewhere in the History, his alter ego Diedrich Knickerbocker looks to the Carolingians to explain why New York City’s “ancient magistrates” were chosen, naturally, by weight:

As a board of magistrates, formed on this model, think but very little, they are the less likely to differ and wrangle about favourite opinions—and as they generally transact business upon a hearty dinner, they are naturally disposed to be lenient and indulgent in the administration of their duties. Charlemagne was conscious of this, and therefore (a pitiful measure, for which I can never forgive him) ordered in his cartularies, that no judge should hold a court of justice, except in the morning, on an empty stomach—a rule, which, I warrant, bore hard upon all the poor culprits in his kingdom. The more enlightened and humane generation of the present day have taken an opposite course…

Jolly old Diedrich Knickerbocker also trots out several mock-heroic references to Roland, the “Orlando” of romance. Two of them occur in battles between Dutchmen and Swedes, while the third anchors a preposterous yarn about the death of trumpeter Antony Von Corlear, whose race to aid his fellow Dutchmen is stymied when a devil drags him to the bottom of the Harlem River:

Luckless Antony! scarce had he buffeted half way over, when he was observed to struggle most violently as if battling with the spirit of the waters—instinctively he put his trumpet to his mouth and giving a vehement blast—sunk forever to the bottom!

The potent clangour of his trumpet, like the ivory horn of the renowed Paladin Orlando, when expiring in the glorious field of Roncesvalles, rung far and wide in through the country, alarming the neighbors round, who hurried in amazement to the spot…

Irving later visited relatives in England (where he wrote two of his most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) and spent 17 years wandering Europe. He had mined German folklore for two of his biggest hits and expected further inspiration. “I mean to get into the confidence of every old woman I meet with in Germany,” he told a friend, “and get from her, her budget of wonderful stories.”

The romantic New Yorker, pushing 40, soon met the drab reality of history. Visiting Aachen in 1822, he noted in his journal that he had seen the “fountain with bronze statue of Charlemagne” and “Charlemagne’s Chair in Town Hall,” both of which are still tourist landmarks, but he saved his grousing for a darkly amusing letter to his sister:

I am disappointed in Aix-la-Chapelle. To me it is a very dull place, and I do not find that others seem more pleased with it.

[. . .]

This is the birthplace, and was once the seat of empire of Charlemagne, that monarch so renowned in history and song. His tomb is in the cathedral, and is only marked by a broad slab of black marble, on which is the inscription, Carolo Magno. The Cathedral is an extremely ancient, venerable-looking pile. Every night I hear the hours chimed on its bells; and the midnight hours announced by the watchman from its tower. The Germans are full of old customs and usages, which are obsolete in other parts of the world . . .

The people have an antiquated look, particularly the lower orders. The women dress in peculiar costumes. As to the company at the hotels and public saloons, it is composed of all nations, but particularly northern nations: Russians, Prussians, Germans, Dutch, &c. Everywhere you see military characters, in fierce moustaches and jingling spurs, with ribbons and various orders at their button-holes. Still, though there are many personages of rank here, the place is not considered the most fashionable, and there are many rough characters in the crowds that throng the saloons. Indeed it is somewhat difficult to distinguish a gentleman from a common man among these northern people; there is great slovenliness of dress and coarseness of appearance among them; they all smoke; and I have often been surprised to hear a coarse-looking man, whom I had set down for some common tradesman, addressed as Monsieur the Count or the Baron. The weather has been very bad for several days past.

A recent biographer points out that Irving was suffering from an illness, perhaps the gout, which the famous waters of Aix-la-Chapelle failed to cure—but he wasn’t the last tourist to find Aachen underwhelming. A 2003 Rick Steves guidebook dismisses “unassuming Aachen” near the “unromantic Rhine,” and when I sat in Aachen Cathedral on a frigid February weekend in 2008, I heard tourists mumble that the place was too small to have been worth the trip.

Despite their gripes, I found that the “concentrated magnificence” of the octagonal chapel at Aachen repays real contemplation, and trying to see it backwards across a 1,200-year gulf is a worthy (if futile) ambition. Tourists to Aachen wish for eighth-century streets; if Washington Irving’s imagination failed him in Charlemagne’s town, what hope can their be for the Lonely Planet crowd?

Two years after sulking in Aachen, Irving wrote in Tales of a Traveller: “The land of literature is a fairy land to those who view it from a distance, but like all other landscapes, the charm fades on a nearer approach, and the thorns and briars become visible.” He later found his European dreamworld in Spain, especially Granada, where he briefly lived and wrote at the Alhambra. As the author of the most popular 19th-century book about Christopher Columbus, Irving convinced Americans, wrongly, that medieval people believed the world was flat. It’s tempting to wonder what myths he might have spun about Charlemagne if he’d just passed through Aachen in sunnier health. Generations of teachers perhaps can be glad he did not.

(Photo of Aachen taken in February 2008.)

“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.

“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!