Saturday, February 14, 2009

Medieval Art Deco

Last May, I led a walking tour of Rockefeller Center, focusing on its heraldry. In addition to the traditional (though subdued) English and French coats of arms, I found an intriguing heraldic grouping above the West 51st Street entrance to the International Building. Designed by Depression-era artist Lee Lawrie, fourteen shields had been originally designed to carry the arms of specific countries. However, along the way, Lawrie was instructed to make them more abstract and generalized: the colors were muted to fit the Art Deco palette of Rockefeller Center, the individual elements became starker, and none of the fourteen shields represented any country or family.

In her excellent book The Art of Rockefeller Center (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), Christine Roussel explains: “The 20 West Fifty-first Street entrance required embellishment to maintain consistency with the rest of the Center, but to endow it with specific elements seemed too explicit and might limit the rental market.” The final rendering of the shields, completed in 1937, implied “history and internationalism without being explicitly devoted to one part of the world or any one country.”

What do you think of these designs? If you’re new to the study of heraldry, you might find the following website interesting: Glossary of Heraldic Terms . In my opinion, the shields pictured here, courtesy of heraldist Paul Campbell, are the most compelling of the group. But see for yourself the next time you’re in Rockefeller Center.

P.S. My tour was co-sponsored by the Committee on Heraldry of the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society and the College of Arms Foundation, Inc. If you’d like information on heraldic activities in New York, post a comment below with your email address and we’ll return your message post-haste.

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