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Rock History

By Jane LernerApr 9 2014

An icon of history can be recognizable to the eye, yet it's possible that we know nothing about it.

That is often the case for the gold statue in Rockefeller Center’s lower Plaza. When picturing the skating rink, we don’t only imagine the sunken rink itself or the flow of skaters moving in a circle, but we see Prometheus, the 18-foot-tall, eight-ton, gilded cast bronze sculpture that was created by Paul Manship in 1934.

The sculpture has been in the background of countless concerts, tree lightings, skating shows and special events, but few are aware of its meaning or where it came from. Prometheus is just one piece of public art that was integrated into the plans of greater Rockefeller Center, but is definitely one of the most recognizable—in fact, many sources say this is the fourth most recognized statue in the country, behind the Lincoln Memorial, Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, and is the most photographed piece of art in NYC.

Referencing Greek mythology, the statue depicts the Greek Titan Prometheus, best known for going against the wishes of the gods and providing fire to humanity (and thus is given credit for civilization and progress). Over time, this classical figure came to represent human striving and the quest for knowledge. Prometheus played a large role in the approach to the art and architecture in the Complex, especially given that the overall theme of the project was "New Frontiers and the March of Civilization."

Prometheus perfectly embodies both ancient myths and forward-thinking progress. He is depicted in motion, thrusting forward with his right arm held high, handing off the eternal flame to all of mankind; he sits on a mountain (Earth), is surrounded by the fountain (sea) and is encircled by the ring of the zodiac (heavens). 

For those that have never looked, an inscription accompanies the sculpture. It reads: “Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.”

Put into the historical context of the 1930s—mid-Depression, leading up to WWII, the rise of 20th-century Modernism—this gilded, cast bronze sculpture starts to take on much more meaning.

In New York City, when you stop and take a closer look at something you’ve seen dozens of times, you are often rewarded with more thought-provoking stories than you ever expected.

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