It may be June, but the May issue of The Blue & White lives on. In Bluenotes, the magazine staff explore those smaller oddities of our campus and neighborhood, which catch our eyes from time to time. This month, the gazes of two staff writers were particularly caught by Butler Library (you don’t say?!) First up, Sam Herzog breaks down a towering, but ignored, artistic feature of that place you bitterly remember either being in or bitching about.
Most students who enter Butler are too preoccupied with snagging hot real estate to notice the imposing artwork presiding over them. But for those attentive few, the reward is a massive, clever mural by Eugene Savage. An American artist, Savage painted Athena into each of the college murals he designed, always adorned in the featured school’s colors.
Columbia’s Athena towers over the center of the mural as one enters the library. The goddess of wisdom fends off green demonic figures representing ignorance, while ushering in masses seeking enlightenment—representing the working class, as indicated by their garb and stance. Ironically, by the time most students see the mural as they exit Butler, many resemble the sickly demons of ignorance as opposed to the bright-eyed crowd eager to be guided up the steps to the arch of enlightenment.
The hammer and sickle in the workers’ hands are subdued by their inconspicuous placement in the scene, but are symbolically vibrant. Indicative of American Communist movements in the 1930s (Savage painted the mural in 1933), they are shrewdly placed in the hands of different workers, adding spice to traditional symbolism.
Hovering above Columbia are three muselike figures holding symbols of the four major phases of human effort: law, art, religion, and science. The first woman, holding a winged figure and a flaming lamp, wears a laurel wreath-like crown—perhaps a tribute to the large number of Columbia Nobel Laureates. The second figure holds a fasces—the symbol of authority—and a halo covers the head of the third figure, who holds the Ten Commandments, symbolizing religion. The mural also incorporates the University’s crown and motto. The New York skyline peeks through one side of Athena’s robe.
The mural, influenced by both Classical and Art Deco styles, reflects a portrayal of traditional values alongside contemporary, more radical, proclivities. This duality is reflected in Columbia itself: the University is esteemed for its core curriculum as it simultaneously encourages students to push boundaries.
Ancient and Medieval History Librarian Karen Green, a keen observer and fan of the mural, comments, “I still think [Columbia] looks like Cher.”
Let’s be real: it was renovated in 1998.