The other day, I was scouting the steps of the New York Public Library main branch. I’ve had to do this assignment a million times over the years for various movies and TV shows that want to shoot at the world’s most famous library, and I began thinking how sad it was to know a location so well that there were no surprises left to find.
As I was taking the pictures, I happened to zoom in on this row of statues over the main entrance:
Nothing really stood out about them…
Just your run-of-the-mill toga-clad statuary, all looking appropriately deep in thought:
I was about to move on when one of the statues caught my eye: a woman, who resembled all the others except for one very unusual feature…
She was holding a decapitated head.
OK, I’ve been to the New York Public Library a million times over the years, and I’ve NEVER noticed this. Who is she, and why does she look so angry? And who was the bodyless man?
I couldn’t find the answer anywhere online (everyone just writes about the lions) so I wrote to the NYPL. It turns out that is the personification of Drama, as sculpted by Paul Wayland Bartlett. She is joined on both sides by fellow “attic sculptures” representing (from left to right) History, Romance, Religion, Poetry, and Philosophy.
So does that mean it’s just a Tragedy mask? That would make sense, but tell me I’m wrong in thinking that looks like she’s holding a head by the hair. Is there a particular work this was inspired by?
Whatever the answer might be, finding the statue of a woman holding a decapitated head on the New York Public Library is a really great reminder for the New Year that, no matter how well you think you know New York, there are ALWAYS surprises to be found.