An art-historical look at the Peace Fountain.
By Becky Miller
A bubbling, sturdy story of mysticism and religion, the Peace Fountain stands at 40 feet tall and draws eyes and feet to its lush plaza just below the gothic Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 111th and Amsterdam Avenue. The familiar greenish-black statue rises from its fountain axis and bursts open like Noah’s ark landing ashore.
The statue, created by Greg Wyatt in 1985, tells the tale of a struggle between Satan—the clear loser, whose severed head dangles from a crab’s claw—and the archangel Michael. Michael, described in the Bible as the leader of the heavenly host against the forces of Evil, stands enormous. The archangel towers above the giraffes and the sun, like a star atop a Christmas tree. His wings appear so full of flight that, if a great gust of wind blew through the garden and shook the statue from its roots, I could easily picture him soaring over the cathedral’s spires and carrying the entire hunk of metal into the sky, like the balloon house in Up.
Nine giraffes—necks twisted, ribs exposed, in various sizes—curve from behind the angel’s massive wings and bend throughout the statue, connecting angels, suns, moons, and devils. The giraffes invite visitors into the garden, with their graceful bodies coiling into obscurity, hovering on the border of the divine and the physical. The giraffes charm you with their surprising elegance, at once biblical and secular. It is impossible not to ponder Peace Fountain as you pass by on your walk home.
Once you lose track of counting giraffes, your eyes float to the satisfied sun that beams mid-statue. The sun’s face—strangely human with high cheekbones, a radiant smile, a defined nose, and raised eyebrows—watches the day end, facing west. On its backside, another circular face of a sun accepts the morning’s rise from the east. The two-faced sun rests in a spike-rimmed bowl, where gargoyle-esque lions perch and crab-claws extend and remind us that the most universal markers of time cannot escape us, even in our concrete jungle. The spikes that reach out from the bowl’s sides recall Lady Liberty’s crown—perhaps this was Wyatt’s homage to the city where the Peace Fountain stands and swirls every day, asserting that New York is just as wild as the Garden of Eden, its icons just as immortal.
The goliath piece of art contemplates how the scientific realm can be as much of a life force as the Episcopalianism preached next door in St. John the Divine. The statue’s entire body stems from a base of curled bronze, a double helix of DNA that sprouts Satan and St. Michael’s contest as it grows upwards and entangles beasts and bodies. It’s fitting that the building block of life upholds the angel and devil, the giraffes and the crabs, and the entire web of myth and nature that bursts from the sculpture.
Animating the inanimate, Peace Fountain still conjures the opposing powers of righteousness and sin, of tradition and science, 37 years after its construction. With the devil’s head hanging low and St. Michael’s wings reaching skyward, the bronze eruption reiterates the vitality of life at every layer. As St. Michael’s sword cascades downwards, the sun still smiles.