Friday, May 20, 2011

II. The Central Park Obelisk

At 71 feet tall and weighing 244 tons, the Central Park obelisk, commonly known as Cleopatra's Needle, was one of a pair carved from pink Aswan granite and originally erected before the temple of the sun in the sacred city of Heliopsis (the city of the sun, known as On to ancient Egyptians), for Pharaoh Thutmosis III in 1443 B.C. Some two centuries later Ramesses II ordered its flanks carved with hieroglyphs commemorating his military victories. With the collapse of dynastic Egypt and the abandonment of Heliopsis, the obelisks, long toppled, were re-erected by the Romans at Alexandria before the Caesarium during the reign of the Emperor Augustus in 12 B.C. Already worn by time, the obelisk's base was stabilized by bronze rods, dissimulated by sculptures of crabs at each corner and engraved with the date of the obelisk's erection and the name of the Roman engineer who supervised the work.

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, a group of influential New Yorkers led by William H. Hurlbert, editor of the New York World, and backed by the rail magnate William H. Vanderbilt, openly began to militate that the United States be offered the "gift" of an Egyptian obelisk. Their case of European obelisk-envy only intensified in 1877, when the English engineer John Dixon undertook the removal of the fallen Alexandrian obelisk—a gift to England dating from 1819 to commemorate Lord Nelson's victory in the Battle of the Nile. (After a near-disastrous sea voyage, the fallen obelisk was erected at Victoria Embankment, London in 1878.) Dixon, sensing profit to be made from the New York clique, informed Hurlbert that he could demount and ship the remaining obelisk from Alexandria to New York for the sum of £15,000.

Vanderbilt quickly agreed to the sum but the deal soon hit a fatal snag when the Khedive Ismail Pasha indicated that the obelisk in question was not Dixon's to sell and that any negotiations were to be undertaken by the government of the United States and not private parties. Nonplussed, Hurlbert contacted William Evarts, the US Secretary of State, and Henry G. Stebbins, former Congressman, President of the New York Stock Exchange and the then Parks Commissioner for the City of New York, and arranged with them to begin negotiations with the Khedive through the offices of the State Department. The negotiations, headed by Judge Elbert Farman, US Counsel General to Egypt, dragged on through the winter but the Khedive eventually relented to the removal of the Alexandrian obelisk in May 1878.

After a year's planning, the obelisk's arduous year-long transport was supervised by Lieutenant Commander Henry Gorringe, a U.S. Navy engineer. Gorringe began the delicate task of lowering the obelisk in early August of 1879 but suspended the operation for two months due to local protests and legal challenges—no doubt in large part incited by the large American flag that had been raised atop the crated monolith—which required Consular intervention to quell. Once lowered by fulcrum—with an uncontrolled drop that thankfully did no damage—the obelisk was slid into the hold of the drydocked steamer Dessoug through an opening in its hull. The ship set sail June 12, 1880, arriving in New York July 20th. Another seven months were required to transport the obelisk across Manhattan to Graywacke Knoll behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, with great pomp, ceremony and speechifying, it was re-erected upon its original base on January 22, 1881 in the presence of Secretary of State Evarts and a crowd of 10,000 extremely chilled spectators.

The obelisk's saga created a press frenzy in New York, and as noted in an earlier post, over 9,000 freemasons paraded up Fifth Avenue in a celebration simply to mark the laying of the cornerstone of the obelisk's foundation by the Grand Master of Masons of the State of New York. However, before any heated editorializing about the relative merits of Madison, Union or Herald Squares, Columbus Circle or elsewhere could be mounted, the self-appointed site selection committee—Hurlbert, Gorringe and the artist Frederick Church, who was enlisted in an effort to paper over the fait accompli rubberstamping Vanderbilt's wishes—announced its decision to little joy but that expressed by the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to which the Vanderbilt family were major donors. Vanderbilt, owner of the New York Central Railroad (with its notoriously murderous Manhattan tunnel) and the world's richest man, would gain lasting infamy for saying, "The public be damned!" the following year.

The obscure site, an open greensward some yards behind the Museum, was a truly spectacular misplacement of this outstanding ancient monument and ranks as the greatest wasted opportunity for civic embellishment in the city's entire architectural history. With breathtaking hubris and offering appallingly flimsy justifications for the choice, Gorringe wrote, "In order to avoid needless discussion of the subject, it was decided to maintain the strictest secrecy as to the location determined on." He noted that the prime advantage of the Knoll was its "isolation" and that it was the best site to be found inside the park, as it was quite elevated and the foundation could be firmly anchored in bedrock, lest Manhattan suffer "some violent convulsion of nature." Indeed.

I. Objects of Awe

The Egyptian obelisk is Western society's most potent and coveted talisman and literally stands as the physical marker of civilization itself. Of the 21 ancient obelisks standing today, Egypt itself retains only four; Rome is graced by 13, all plundered by its ancient emperors, then re-erected during the Renaissance. The remainder are found in what the Victorians, who coveted them as profoundly as had the Caesars, would have called 'the great metropolises of Western civilization'—Istanbul, Florence, Paris, London and finally New York City. (The fourth Duke of Northumberland and Sir William Bankes each also pillaged an obelisk as the ultimate in Grand Tour souvenirs; today they stand in Durham University by way of Alnwick Castle and at Kingston Lacy in Dorset).

Why this all came to be is quite obvious, for obelisks are quite simply the perfect monument: they are rare in the extreme, they were conceived as sacred monuments by the semi-divine rulers of the world's greatest ancient civilization, and they are the largest, heaviest and most elegant objects ever created by man. All hyperbole aside, everything about them is truly exceptional.

All ancient obelisks are monoliths quarried from the fine pink granite found at Aswan, ancient Selene, located on the banks of the Nile in Lower Egypt. The earliest obelisks were raised at On, the sacred ceremonial city known to us today by its Greek name, Heliopsis, city of the sun, or more exactly, city of the sun god Ra. Obelisks were always erected in pairs and stood at the forecourt flanking the entrance through the pylon, the massive, chamfered wall pierced by a central portal that gave access to the inner courtyard of the temple, as seen in the photograph of Luxor, above.

In form, an obelisk is defined by a square-sectioned, tapering shaft and a pyramid-shaped cap, known logically enough as the pyramidion. Like the classical Greek columnar orders (i.e., Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns), obelisks follow certain consistent proportional rules: the height of the shaft ranges from nine to eleven times the width of the base, and the pyramidion's height equals the width of the base. The largest obelisks are—excepting the extraordinary foundation stones at Baalbek, Lebanon—also the largest monoliths known to man. One unfinished obelisk, still lying in its quarry bed at Aswan but abandoned due to natural fissures, is estimated to weigh over 1,200 tons and would have stood 42 meters high—a staggering mass that even we today would find extremely difficult to maneuver.

Like the Greeks, Egyptian masons employed entasis—an imperceptible convex bulging—to give the long, straight shaft a pleasing visual equilibrium. The pyramidion and shafts were invariably carved with dedicatory hieroglyphs composed in the name of the Pharaoh who had commissioned the obelisk; the faces of the deeply incised glyphs were highly polished while the shaft itself was left in an unpolished state. Pyramidions were, as today seen on the other obelisk from Luxor now standing in Paris at the Place de la Concorde, capped with gold ("the flesh of the gods") and many also had their shafts sheathed with polished copper sheets, and more rarely with iron or entirely in gold.

The Egyptians called obelisks tejen, a word synonymous with "protection" or "defense." Obelisk is derived more prosaically from the Greek word obeliskos, a roasting spit. The orthodox explanation of their meaning offered by nineteenth-century scholars is that obelisks are a representation and invocation of the sun's rays, and thus of the sun god Ra himself. They reach toward the sun to draw its generative power to earth as well as to capture Ra's protection, and thus they dispel storms and evil influences. This interpretation makes perfect sense, since obelisks first appeared at On (Heliopsis), the city of Ra, though later they were erected before the most important temples throughout the Upper and Lower Kingdom.

However, left unspoken by the Victorians is the obelisk's obvious phallic symbolism, which is an overt invocation of Osiris—who, with his sister and wife Isis, was the most important god of the Egyptian pantheon. First-born of the union of the earth (Geb) and the sky (Nut) and first Pharaoh of the mythical "First Time," Osiris ruled wisely and mercifully as the "Lord of love" until he was murdered by his evil brother Set, who coveted his throne and who incarnated the desert. Set hacked Osiris' corpse into 14 pieces and cast them away but Isis retrieved all his members save his penis, which Set had thrown into the Nile. Isis fashioned a replacement phallus of gold and momentarily resurrected her brother/husband to copulate with him, bearing their son Horus, "the Savior" who overthrew Set to regain the throne and so was considered the progenitor of all later Pharaohs. Osiris then became ruler of the Duat, or the realm of the afterlife, and together with Isis incarnated mercy, fecundity, rebirth, immortality and the cycle of the seasons.

Most broadly then, the obelisk embodied the Egyptian belief of "as above, so below" and linked the male to the female, the human to the divine, the earth to the cosmos, the living to the dead, and the reigning Pharaoh to Osiris, god of the afterlife and of immortality. The male form standing before the interior recesses of the temple, the tejen drew Ra's essence down from the rays of the sun and Osiris' seed up from the underworld.

The obelisk before St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican evokes this regenerative symbolism quite explicitly, standing as it does at the center of the female forms of Bernini's oval colonnade and before Michelangelo's dome; likewise, the Washington Monument faces the Capitol's dome in symbolic re-enactment of the Isis-Osiris myth.

Wholly apart from these vast, monumental urban ensembles, the original schema of the obelisk has also been preserved and retransmitted, almost ad infinitum, by its transmutation into classical architecture in the form of paired columns flanking an entry portal. Ultimately, the pair of posts bracketing the lowliest front door derives from Egyptian temples, and the most famous example of this schema is of course the pair of finely worked bronze columns that stood before Solomon's Temple and which are minutely described in the Bible. These freestanding columns were so important that Hiram, the bronzeworker who King Solomon "fetched out of Tyre" to furnish the Temple, had given them names: the right pillar, Jachin and the left pillar, Boaz. Immediately thereafter, the Bible recounts that Hiram "made a molten sea, ten cubits from one brim to the other"—that is, he cast a massive bronze basin that stood in the Temple's courtyard and held "two thousand baths" of water. Biblical scholars have long speculated what function this basin served, and posit either a symbolic linkage to the "primordial waters" of the book of Genesis or its use in ritual ablutions—even though the Bible states that Hiram also fashioned ten smaller basins explicitly for this purpose. Whatever its true purpose, the circular basin doubtless also symbolized attributes of Isis: the feminine, fertility, the womb.

Of course here we have also just encountered several foundational traditions of freemasonry. The bronzeworker Hiram of Tyre is known to every mason as Hiram Abiff (linked through his own murder to Osiris); and, according to the Masonic Old Ritual, hidden inside Hiram's hollow columns were ancient records and the most valuable secrets of the Jewish people (and those they inherited from their captors, the Egyptians)—the veritable ancient secrets of the occult mystery schools. And such is the influence of freemasonry that, if you were to dig beneath almost any significant public structure erected since the nation's founding, you would likely as not discover Masonic tokens beneath its cornerstone and Masonic symbolism incorporated into its site: Over 9000 freemasons paraded up Fifth Avenue to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone for the New York obelisk on October 2nd, 1880, in a ceremony presided by the Grand Master of Masons of the State of New York.

Though in steady decline since the Depression era, freemasonry has recently received renewed attention, and with it vilification and demonization, exemplified by the enormous success of the conspiratorial fiction of Dan Brown. Masonic societies are believed to harbor a powerful Luciferian brotherhood, an elite network that is one of the pillars of the "unseen hand" guiding world events. Its occult symbols are woven into the fabric of our society and our built world. Doubtless the contemporary reality of Masonic influence is far more prosaic than this, though nonetheless the preceding sentence is entirely true: Masonic symbolism is indeed woven into the fabric of our built world—because freemasonry's symbols are derived from our common legacy as a civilization. Occult is an ancient word meaning "hidden" and has no prima facie connotation of sinister, as so many today believe. The point here is not to defend freemasonry but rather to attempt to disentangle its oft-contentious reputation from the realm of architecture and its meaning.

To be clear, there is nothing inherently sinister in obelisks, paired columns, sphinxes, pyramids, or any other ancient architectural elements adopted by the masons, nor have they become corrupted in how they have been employed or reinterpreted. To give but one example already cited: the great obelisk on the Mall in Washington, DC, was designed by masons and stands in a city whose plan was designed by a mason and is dedicated to the first president of the United States, a 33rd degree Scottish Rite freemason. Few structures on earth besides their own lodges are more Masonic than the Washington Monument, and yet it is a magnificent monument to a truly great man whose symbolism echoes through the ages, well over 4,000 years, to its roots in ancient Egypt. However, it does not follow that its meaning is the same as that the Egyptians gave to their obelisks, nor does it follow that it is some dark perversion of it; rather its meaning is the summation of all that has come before commingled with the aspirations of its builders, and with the greatest part reserved for its intended purpose, to honor the nation's founder with a form synonymous with immortality.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hidden in Plain Sight

This small limestone pavilion, of truly exceptional beauty, was built in the mid-18th century at the entrance to the Maison royale de Saint-Louis, known simply as Saint-Cyr, the vast convent school that stood a bare stone's throw from Versailles. Louis XIV established St-Cyr in 1684 as a pension to educate impoverished aristocratic girls at the behest of Madame de Maintenon, his pious morganatic wife, and the imposing complex was the work of Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the Sun King's ubiquitous First Architect.

Louis XV, true to form, held not the slightest interest in Saint-Cyr; though he was its patron and paid its bills and galloped past its gates on hunts literally hundreds of times over the decades, he never once bothered to visit the school and refused to enroll any of his daughters there. Nonetheless, he did commission the Pavillon des Archives; and though records have been lost, the pavilion's outstanding quality and distinctive style indicates that it was quite probably designed by his First Architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel—the greatest French architect of the mid-eighteenth century and author of the Petit Trianon and the Place de la Concorde.

In 1808, Napoléon, also true to form, transformed St-Cyr into a military academy. Heavily damaged in World War II, the complex was restored by order of Charles De Gaulle and still today houses a military academy. Fortunately, the Archives Pavilion survived virtually unscathed from these attacks, though its interiors suffered at the hands of ruthless, fluorescent-lit postwar functionalism.

There is profound truth in the real-estate agent's mantra of "Location, location, location." Though it is a perfect jewel—the apex of the pavillon de plaisance form and the distillation of French neoclassicism—nevertheless the pavilion remains virtually unknown and has rarely been published in the architectural literature, and even then as a footnote. Had it been erected within Versailles' walls rather than in St-Cyr's shadow, the pavilion would today be mentioned in the same breath as Gabriel's masterwork, the Petit Trianon; instead it stands overlooked and anonymous, mere yards from the main road linking the towns of St-Cyr and Versailles.