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Angel of the Waters

In 1863, Gordon Webster Burnham presented Central Park with the statue Eagles and Prey. It depicts a rather gruesome moment when two eagles are piercing the hide of a mountain goat that has gotten himself pinioned between rocks. It was the first such gift to the park, but far from the last. Over the next hundred years, dozens of sculptures and statues were presented to the park.  

Many of these works of art were gifts from foreign states who wanted representation in this melting pot. Germany gave us busts of the composer Beethoven and the scientist and naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt. Scotland has two writers sitting opposite each other on the Mall, Robert Burns and Walter Scott. A sculpture of King Jagiello of Poland represents Central Europe near Turtle Pond. Ireland sent one of poet and author Thomas Moore. Latin America gave us three of their sons, Símon Bolívar, José Martí and José de San Martín, and both Spain and Italy gave us statues of Christopher Columbus, each claiming him as their own. Most have stood the test of time, but not all. Dr. James Marion Sims, a pioneer in the field of gynecology, was removed recently when it was learned that the doctor’s practice of operating on slaves without anesthesia predated the crimes of the infamous Josef Mengele. And Columbus might be next for the chopping block for his inhumane treatment of the natives of the Americas.

Some of the statues are just fun, like the one of Hans Christian Andersen bending over to pet his ugly duckling, or the very busy work of Alice in Wonderland, who has all the characters from Lewis Carroll’s book around her. Or Balto, the sled dog who represents the mush teams that ran over 600 miles from Anchorage to Nome with a serum to save the children there from a diphtheria outbreak. All of these statues have developed a smooth patina from the children who climb and play on them.

Others are just beautiful works of art, like the Untermeyer Fountain in the Conservatory Gardens. To come upon this statue of three maidens around a fountain, dancing with joy as the water cascades about them, stirs the soul.  Nearby is the Burnett Fountain, with the two main characters from Francis Hodgson Burnett’s book the Secret Garden. Mary is standing, holding a birdbath, while Dicken lays against a rock, playing the flute. Both of these breath-taking pieces are set in idyllic gardens.

All of these busts, statues and sculptures bring beauty and character to the park, but the crowning glory has to be the installation of the Angel of the Waters, the statue that sits atop the fountain at the Bethesda Terrace.

It is fitting that the Park authorities commissioned their first statue for the official completion of the park. The authorities wanted something that would illustrate their vision of the park as a life-sustaining place of healing and restoration. The commission was given to the artist Emma Stebbins.

This was unprecedented. Dozens of works had been commissioned by the city, but none by a woman. Ms. Stebbins was eminently qualified, however. She was living a bohemian life in Rome with a group of ex-pat female artists and actors when she learned of her submission’s acceptance.  

At its unveiling, the public saw an eight-foot tall female angel with wings outspread, sitting 26-feet in the air inside a fountain, with four cherubim at its feet. Ms. Stebbins chose this theme because of the location chosen for the sculpture, between the Bethesda Terrace and the Croton Aqueduct. She took her inspiration from the gospel of St. John, 5:2-4. 

“Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool which is called...Bethesda...whoever then first after the troubling of the waters stepped in was made whole of whatever disease he had.”

In the angel’s right hand she holds a lily branch representing purity, and her left is extended over the pool in the manner of a blessing. The meaning of the statue needed no explanation to the visitors of the day. It was simple yet profound.

Besides the Statue of Liberty, it is probably the most recognized statue in the United States. Television shows like Gossip Girl and Sex in the City, movies like Enchanted, Elf, One Fine Day and the Out of Towners have made it a must-see for visitors, but it was used most pointedly in the final scene of the Mike Nichols-directed Angels in America, a film about AIDS at the turn of the last century.

Bethesda Terrace in Central Park
Angel of the Waters | Photo by Sanna Toumi

The statue offers life not just metaphorically, but in actuality. When I lead tours on a hot summer’s day, it is always a respite to reach the fountain. Lilies and orchids grow in its waters, and you can see a coy fish or two. If there is a breeze, I will position myself downwind to catch the spray on my face. It gives me energy for the rest of the tour.

A footnote on the interesting life of Emma Stebbins. She was from a wealthy Manhattan family but chose to study and live abroad. She lived with the most famous actress in world at that time, Charlotte Cushman, and in Europe was able to grow both artistically and personally. She eventually returned to the States with Charlotte, who was dying of cancer. Emma nursed her until her death and then spent her own final days putting together a memoir about the love of her life. Emma Stebbins died at the age 67 in New York City.

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