Prometheus – giving mortals “a Means to Mighty Ends”

The Aeschylus quote, carved in the granite wall behind the massive gilded statue of Prometheus in the heart of the Rockefeller Center, says: “Prometheus, Teacher in Every Art, Brought the Fire That Hath Proved to Mortals a Means to Mighty Ends.” 

But who was Prometheus? And why is he the focal point of the Rockefeller Center?

There are only two large freestanding public sculptures in the Rockefeller center – Prometheus and Atlas – brothers who, along with other Titans, rebelled against the Gods of Olympus. The uprising failed, and Zeus, as punishment, made Atlas support the sky, while Prometheus was chained to a rock, condemned to have his liver eaten by an eagle for eternity. Despite the inflicted torture, both Titans benefited humanity by teaching them sciences, arts, and practical skills.

Prometheus was punished for stealing fire from Olympus and giving it to humans, thus, providing them with the power to make tools and advance technology, leading to civilization. Before he stole fire, Prometheus made a rather misguided attempt to help humans. Zeus required an obligatory sacrifice of a slaughtered animal, and Prometheus arranged it into two piles: eatable meat and useless bones. Making the bone pile look more appetizing, he tricked Zeus into accepting bones while leaving food to humans. Zeus was not amused and developed an intense animosity towards the mortals withholding fire. Defying the rules, Prometheus stole fire and gave it back to mankind. This act is hard to overestimate: the gift of fire gave humans skills, arts, and technology.

Prometheus presented a pretty complex personality: a trickster who outwitted the Olympians, a rebel who defied the gods’ will, and a creator of humanity who gave us the most valuable gift. 

Throughout art history, Prometheus was usually dramatically depicted as a martyr receiving his awful punishment: chained to the cliff, he endured daily visits by an eagle – sent by Zeus – who came to eat his liver. 

Prometheus symbolizes the man’s ambition of striving for the greater good
Snow-covered gilded Prometheus

Paul Manship, the statue’s sculptor, decided to show Prometheus not as a suffering victim but as a rebel in the act of defiance. He is flying from Olympus through the air, holding the precious gift of fire in his outstretched arm. His horizontal pose is very uncommon for a sculpture. In fact, Paul Manship himself very much doubted his work, regretting that its horizontal orientation clashed with the verticality of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Another unusual aspect of the statue is its monochromatic gilded effect. This gilded glow, Mount Olympus in the background, and zodiac ring around him emphasize Prometheus’ divine status. 

Prometheus, the main artwork of Rockefeller Center, bears the responsibility of conveying the philosophy behind the complex. The original Rockefeller Center’s theme of “Homo Faber” (“Man the Maker”) evolved into the “New Frontiers,” focusing on social and scientific innovations, and finally became “The March of Civilization.” All themes are closely related, and all speak of personal responsibility, achievement, and human progress. 

A monument to the triumphant use of human labor, Prometheus inspired New Yorkers amid the Great Depression. Prometheus, a benevolent and wise teacher of arts to humanity, stands as a metaphor of the Rockefeller Center – a technological and architectural wonder created through hard work, ingenuity, and philanthropy.

  • Artist: Paul Manship
  • Dimensions: 5.5 m (18 ft)
  • Created: 1934

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