Jefferson Market Library – details that tell a story

Elaborate buildings’ details are often more than mere decorations–they convey meaning and tell a story.

One of the most beautiful structures in New York’s architectural landscape is the spectacular Jefferson Market Library. Built a part of a multifunctional complex that included a jail, a market, and a fire tower, it used to house a courthouse. One thing that it never was is a church.

However, its main entrance looks like it belongs in the house of worship rather than the house of justice. The main portal of the elaborate High Victorian gothic structure is adorned by a tympanum (decorative surface over an entrance that contains sculpture or ornaments)–a detail often used in church architecture. The tympanum typically depicts a religious subject, usually placing Jesus in the middle.

The Jefferson Market tympanum

Since Jefferson Market was built as a courthouse, not a church, the subject of this tympanum is a judicial one. It features one of the best-recognized courtroom dramas in classical literature–a scene from The Merchant of Venice.

In the well-known Shakespearean story, Shylock, a moneylender, advances some money to Antonio, the merchant of Venice. The contract states that if Antonio cannot repay the debt, he will settle it with a pound of his flesh. Antonio borrowed the money to help his friend Bassanio to woo a fair maiden by the name of Portia.

Depicted is the Venetian court dispensing justice. In the center is the judge deciding on whether to grant Shylock a pound of flesh. Shylock, on the right, is holding a pair of scales and a dagger, eager to collect. Bassanio, next to him, is visibly distressed. Concerned for his friend’s life, he is holding a hand to his heart. On the left is Portia. Disguised as a man, she points out a flaw in the contract, rendering it unenforceable. A well-dressed man next to her must be the merchant himself, Antonio, awaiting judgment. The moral of the story is that nobody, regardless of status and wealth, is above the law.

Looking closer, up above, one can find an official seal of NYC. It depicts a shield with the sails of a windmill, beavers, and flour barrels. Flanking the shield is a Dutch sailor and a Native American; an American eagle with wings outstretched is perched upon it.

These details are easily overlooked but, when noticed, provide a rich narrative to architectural masterpieces and let them tell their stories.

  • Location: 425 6th Ave
  • Built: 1873-77
  • Architects: Frederick Clarke Withers and Calvert Vaux

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