Mortals and the Divine

Mar 15, 2022

By Steve Beard

Striking Symbolism

Since 1937, a muscle-bound Atlas has been a prominent and provocative art deco centerpiece on Fifth Avenue. The massive statue is surrounded by impressive skyscraper office suites for powerful men and women in New York City. As the focal point of the forecourt of Rockefeller Center, the mighty Titan of Greek mythology is graphically illustrating strength and endurance by singlehandedly holding the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. 

According to a guidebook to the art around Rockefeller Center, artists Lee Lawrie and Rene Paul Chambellan “designed the muscular Titan standing on a slim, simple pedestal, with knees bent and one leg overhanging his perch. This precarious position accentuates the great effort Atlas is making as he raises his burden. … His face is deeply furrowed as he focuses on his task; he is the quintessence of power and potency.” 

Within the Fifth Avenue context, the gargantuan sculpture – four stories tall and weighing in at seven tons – is seen as the triumph of the indomitable human spirit, the strength of solitary determination, or the necessity of self-reliance. Haven’t we been too often tutored that wealth, power, and prestige comes to the fittest, craftiest, and most resilient? No one would be faulted for believing the statue is a salute to the captains of industry for commanding the chariot of prosperity. That is one way to see it. 

The other way to see Atlas carrying the weight of the heavens on his shoulders is as a dreaded and pitiable life-sentence. While endurance and strength can be virtuous, this piece of art is ultimately about cruelty. Within Greek mythology, Atlas is punished by Zeus for countering him in war. Atlas is not holding the weight of the cosmos out of altruism or love. He is under the burden because he failed to overthrow Zeus. 

The Greeks knew how to weave a celestial drama. Almost eight centuries before Christ, Homer described Atlas in The Odyssey as the one who “knows the depths of all the seas, and he, no other, guards (or holds) the tall pillars that keep the sky and earth apart.” Atlas’s brother Prometheus is distressed for his kin because the “burden is not easy for his arms to grasp.” In Prometheus Bound, Atlas is described as the one “who moans as he supports the vault of heaven on his back.”

The New Testament proposes an alternative cosmic reality. St. Paul introduces Jesus Christ with unrivaled grandeur: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:17).

Having walked up and down Fifth Avenue on a handful of occasions, it is worth noting that mythical Atlas is literally across the street from mystical St. Patrick’s Cathedral – one of my favorite places in Manhattan. When the grand doors of the gothic cathedral are open, parishioners leaving worship are staring straight at Atlas as they depart. The juxtaposition is hard to overlook. 

During a Good Friday sermon at St. Patrick’s long ago, Archbishop Fulton Sheen (1895-1979), a legendary television broadcaster and theologian, described Atlas as “bending and groaning and grunting under the weight of the world. That is modern man,” Sheen observed. “The world is too heavy for him and man is breaking under it, trying like a silly child to carry it alone, without any help or grace or faith from God.”

Sheen countered the imagery with that of Jesus Christ taking upon himself the “burden of others and proving that sacrifice for sin, selflessness and love of God and neighbor alone, can remake the world.

“No one will get out of this world without carrying some burden,” Sheen continued. “Atlas will never get out from under that world; the Man who carried the Cross will get out from under it, for it leads to Resurrection and a crown in Life Eternal. This is the choice before us: either try to revolutionize the world and break under it or revolutionize ourselves and remake the world.”

Sheen was not the only observer to point out the striking symbolism. When Presbyterian pastor Bruce Larson (1925-2008) lived in New York City, he used to take people who were considering the Christian faith down to Rockefeller Center. Pointing to Atlas, Larson would emphasize the stress and strain of standing up under life’s burden. “Now that’s one way to live,” he would say to his companion, “trying to carry the world on your shoulders.” 

Writing in his book Believe and Belong (1982), Larson would cross the street to St. Patrick’s and show his friend a small, seemingly inconsequential statue behind the high altar. It depicts Jesus, “perhaps eight or nine years old, and with no effort he is holding the world in one hand,” wrote Larson. 

Complete humanity. Complete divinity. Incarnation. 

“We have a choice,” Larson said. “We can carry the world on our shoulders or we can say, ‘I give up, Lord, here’s my life. I give you my world, the whole world.’”

The statue of the young Jesus was unveiled in St. Patrick’s in 1943 in honor of the ministry of Saint Jean de Brébeuf, an adventurous and compassionate 17th century French missionary to the Huron – Iroquoian Indigenous peoples of North America. Brébeuf studied the Huron/Wendat language and introduced a relatable figure of the Christ child wrapped in rabbit skin. He wrote a poem about the birth of Christ in their native language that is still sung in Canada today (“’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime,” found in The United Methodist Hymnal #244). 

“Within a lodge of broken bark/ The tender Babe was found/ A ragged robe of rabbit skin/ Enwrapped his beauty ’round.”

All of us can relate to the anxiety-brewing moments when we feel like Atlas precariously trying to keep our balance with what seems like the weight of the world on our shoulders. The simple and inconspicuous statue in the cathedral can be a transformative reminder that we need not carry the burden alone. In seasons of great stress, it can be of considerable relief to remember that the Creator of all things – at one point appearing as an infant wrapped in a “ragged robe of rabbit skin” – holds the cosmos safely in his hand.

“God is on earth, he is among men,” declared St. Basil the Great (330-379). “Not in the fire nor amid the sound of trumpets; not in the smoking mountain, or in the darkness, or in the terrible and roaring tempest giving the Law, but manifested in the flesh, the gentle and good One dwells with those he condescends to make his equals. 

“God is in the flesh,” the revered church father said, “not operating from a distance, as did the prophets, but through his human nature, one with ours, he seeks to bring back all mankind to himself.”

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

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