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The Way to 'World Peace'

By Drew PisarraNov 22 2016

Known for his Art Deco style, Lee Lawrie is one of Rockefeller Center's most prolific architectural sculptors. His gilded portrait of a rural woman entitled "Seeds of Good Citizenship" graces La Maison Française, while his Zeus-like “Wisdom” reigns over the Plaza entrance to 30 Rock, and his celebrated "Atlas" (built in partnership with Rene Chambellan) shoulders the weight of the world across from St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Yet perhaps the most relevant work for this moment in time is a more understated creation: Lawrie’s triptych, "World Peace," located near a side entrance of the International Building at 19 West 50th Street. Composed of "Swords Into Plowshares," "Columbia Greeting a Woman" and "Boatman Unfurling a Sail," the three-part piece dates back to September 1937, just a couple of years before the start of World War II. And while Lawrie’s exact beliefs aren’t chiseled into the edifice, the artwork speaks of peace as an American ideal, with the country providing a safe harbor.

"Swords Into Plowshares," gilded intaglio-style into a carving in the limestone above a recessed entrance, depicts two crossed swords melting to become a plow's blade, and is likely to be the first image of the three to catch your eye. Accompanying it is the engraving "Isaiah II IV," referring to the following Biblical passage:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruninghooks:
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more.

This scripture clearly looks toward ending hostility and transforming its tools toward cultivation. According to art historian and author Christine Roussel, who oversees the archives of Rockefeller Center, Lawrie's work "conveys an educational message and a lesson in civility and ethics very much in keeping with the Rockefellers’ vision." It’s a lesson that plays out in the other two parts of the triptych as well: "Boatman," with its sailor rolling up sails as if at the end of a journey, and the adjacent "Columbia Greeting a Woman," in which a female figure symbolizing the U.S.—and freedom itself—welcomes an immigrant to America's shores.

Lawrie himself was a firm believer in design that had something to say. As he wrote in the intro to Sculpture, a book of 48 plates detailing his architectural works: "It seems like a waste of effort when a sculpture aims only to decorate." With the three images of "World Peace," his enduring values are set in stone.

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