An American Parthenon? Our Own Pantheon? Searching History for the Best Way to Commemorate: September 11

Article excerpt

"The time is upon us to build our own Parthenon," prominent art historian Joan Breton Connelly recently suggested in a Wall Street Journal commentary. She referred to the great temple of Athena erected as a monument to the triumphant recovery of Athens from the devastation wrought by Persian invaders in 479 B.C. In the wake of the terrorist atrocities of September 11, Connelly observed, a similarly monumental gesture would seem to be in order.

But what does it mean to build a twenty-first-century Parthenon? Do you hire an architect or sculptor who operates on the assumption that modern times demand uniquely modern solutions? Or do you seek out designers who rely on the forms and conventions that have characterized the art and architecture of the West since the Greeks?

Until the Great Depression, there was a widespread consensus in favor of such cultural continuity in American civic art and architecture. This wholesome respect for the universal, time-tested qualities of classical art produced generations of handsome buildings--from the humble Spanish mission churches with their simplified baroque forms to the Roman grandeur of the Progressive Era's state capitols and train stations. Given the nation's recent, mostly disastrous, experience with memorials, that earlier consensus now looks like a matter of common sense. As the nation considers what sort of memorial might best do justice to September 11, the time is right to review some of the precedents. How have master designers commemorated grief, heroism, and noble sacrifice in times past?

Deeply moving expressions of pathos appeared in ancient Greek sculpture. On their tombstones and sepulchral steles (upright stone slabs with relief carving), the Greeks infused the tragedy of death into scenes of everyday life with unforgettable nobility. We encounter a man standing by his seated wife, who gently clasps the fringe of her garment and stares into space in anticipation of their fated separation. In another relief, a young man with a sorrowful little brother or servant beside him raises a hand in a farewell gesture, holding a pet bird in the other hand. Elsewhere, a youth with his favorite hunting dog sniffing the ground stares outward from the relief as his mourning father, leaning on a stick and clasping his beard, gazes at him, as if trying to fathom the meaning of his loss.

If you go to an old American cemetery, you are bound to encounter echoes of this legacy: images which rely on the human figure as art's most emotionally resonant form. You might well happen upon a memorial treated like an ancient stele, where a departed teenager is commemorated like a Greek youth. At Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., a life-size bronze angel seated on a bench weaves a wreath of branches and leaves in her lap. An urn, the symbolic repository of the remains of the dead, stands in front of her. Seven relief panels adorning the curved granite bench show the stages of a man's life from infancy to death--including youthful love, labor, fatherhood, and the wisdom of old age. There is no reason why the tragedy of lives cut short cannot still be conveyed through such archetypal figures and scenes.

Another powerful, century-old evocation of grief in the same cemetery is Augustus Saint Gaudens' celebrated Adams Monument (1886-91), with its mysterious seated figure utterly withdrawn within her thoughts and her shroud, which leaves visible only her face, neck, and one arm. She holds her hand cupped beside her cheek, with the palm turned inward, in a hauntingly enigmatic gesture. A short walk from the Adams Monument, a striking female figure leans gently against the bronze mausoleum door that separates her from her loved one. Her hair is beautifully arranged, and her drapery leaves a shoulder, much of her back, and her arms exposed. The grieving female's fine hands press against the door.

Another memorial in this cemetery includes a winged cherub asleep on a rocky ledge. …