Standing on Fifth Avenue, right across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, is not a Christian deity, but a mythological titan named Atlas. A part of the overall artistic plan for the Rockefeller Center with sculpture and artworks integrated into its design, the seven tons Atlas is the largest and one of the most prominent.
According to Greek Mythology, Atlas was a titan and, at the beginning of times, fought alongside the other titans against the gods of Olympus. Alas, he was on the battle’s losing side. Punished by Zeus, Atlas was condemned to support the sky upon his mighty shoulders for eternity. He personifies strength and endurance — very much the main themes of the Rockefeller Center, built during the trying times of the Great Depression.
The massive 15 feet-tall Art Deco figure of “Atlas” made out of bronze matches the architectural style of the Rockefeller Center. The whole monument that measures 45-foot (the height of a four-story building) was designed by Lee Lawrie and modeled by Rene Chambellan. Besides “Atlas,” Lee Lawrie is responsible for many other Art Deco works in the Rockefeller Center. They present quite an interesting comparison with the medieval-looking sculptures that adorn the church of St. Thomas, located just a few blocks away.
According to the ancient myth, Atlas, a deity of astronomy, taught humanity the science and art of astronomy and navigation. On the off chance you get lost on the island of Manhattan and need to be guided by the stars, look to the statue of Atlas on Fifth Avenue: fleur-de-lys on the sphere’s north-south axis points to the North Star as seen from New York City!
Atlas’ powerful shoulders carry a beam decorated with the symbols of solar system planets. Above his left arm are the symbols for Mars (♂ a circle with an arrow); Earth, (♁ a globe with a cross) and a small crescent, symbolizing the moon; Venus, (♀, a circle with a cross below it, aka the goddess’ mirror); and Mercury, (☿ a caduceus or a staff intertwined with two serpents). Over his right arm are the Neptune’s trident (♆), Uranus’ symbol ‘H’ (♅), and Saturn’s sickle (♄). The symbol for Jupiter is hidden behind the neck of “Atlas;” after all, it was Jupiter who condemned Atlas to his arduous task. The zodiac signs for the twelve constellations are attached to one of the sphere’s rings.
There he stands, this Art Deco muscles bulging and his chiseled features strained, bearing the weight of the world on his powerful shoulders. He stands for strength, endurance, and responsibility for humanity’s fate — a perfect metaphor for the ideas behind the Rockefeller Center.