Is That A Woman Holding A Decapitated Head on the New York Public Library?

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.

01

As I was taking the pictures, I happened to zoom in on this row of statues over the main entrance:

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Nothing really stood out about them…

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Just your run-of-the-mill toga-clad statuary, all looking appropriately deep in thought:

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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…

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She was holding a decapitated head.

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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?

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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.

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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.

-SCOUT

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29 comments

  1. It’s more likely intended to be a mask. We are talking classical drama here, Greek style, where everyone was masked. You know, the whole Comedy/Tragedy thing that has been passed down and now adorns every High School drama club logo?

  2. Maybe it’s Judith holding the head of Holofernes?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Judith

  3. Looking closer at it, I think the object in her left hand is ALSO a mask, you can see an eye and nose to the right of her wrist, and I think that is the mask’s beard extending below her arm. Masks.

  4. Maybe she’s the woman in The Bacchae (Agave?) who yanked off her son’s head in a Dionysian frenzy, thinking it was a mountain lion?

  5. looks like a classical judith pose to me.

  6. Perhaps these are the four muses, and that is the head of Orpheus.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orpheus

  7. I don’t know. I think @Cully was on to something. I think that’s a mask in her left hand, too.

  8. It would never have occurred to me that this was anything but a mask. I love your scouting reports, but I think this one was a bit of a stretch.

  9. Definitely a mask. And I agree with @Cully about the second one. An antique representation can be found here: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ny_Carlsberg_Glyptothek_-_Melpomene.jpg, and if you look at Wikimedia’s Greek and Roman theater masks category, there are more.

  10. looks like the head of Medusa from the 1980’s “Clash of the Titans” movie. Incredible find!

  11. It’s most likely SALOME, from the play by Oscar Wilde. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salome_(play)

  12. Very interesting. In a slightly related matter — and just a block away at 285 Madison Avenue — exists a treasure trove of smaller figures, frozen in time on the side of the building. (Please cut-and-paste this URL if it is not a “live” link:
    http://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/285-madison-avenue/ )

  13. The idea that it’s the personification of drama is interesting…has anyone thought that it might be Judith holding the head of Holofernes? That’s a pretty common theme in western art…

  14. Actually, the sculptor was inspired by the movie Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

  15. That book he returned must have been really overdue. ;)

  16. You just gave me a reason to go visit that library branch. I can’t wait to share this creepy find with my friends.

  17. Isn’t it obvious? That’s the head librarian.

  18. I was looking for a close-up of the guy to her left – Philosophy, I guess?

  19. The two bearded old men represent History and Philosophy. The two pairs of female figures in between represent Romance and Religion, Poetry and Drama. So the Drama figure with the “head” is actually holding a theater mask. The pieces were sculpted by Paul Bartlett and carved by the Piccirilli Brothers, who also carved the huge seated Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.

  20. Here’s a photo of Piccirilli studio in the Bronx (467 East 142nd Street)where these figures were probably carved. Today the place is a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall.
    http://www.lehman.edu/academics/arts-humanities/piccirilli/img42.php

  21. Looks like Thalia holding a comedic mask.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thalia_%28muse%29

  22. Songquo Runsunyen

    Melpomene, the muse of Tragedy; almost always depicted with the tragic mask. (Do an image search for numerous examples.)

    Thanks to Susanne on 1/7/2013, who had the right image, but not the rest of the story.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melpomene

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