Monday, September 20, 2010

High-powered mythological guardians

Theories abound as to why Western architecture has been ornamented with figures — whether they be gods or mortals, celestial beings or rude humans, the devil himself or souls trapped in stone on their way to hell, recognizable animals or bizarre hybrids. One school of thought is that traditionally they were used by the Church to instruct the illiterate masses or terrify them into compliance with the Ten Commandments. Another suggests that the figures were believed to keep away evil spirits and protect a building’s occupants.

The building at 45 Milk Street in Boston is richly endowed, but the figures don’t seem to have any work to do.

It started life in 1893 as the International Trust Company Building, by the architect William Gibbons Preston (1844-1910), who enlarged it in 1906. Sculptor Max Bachman
(1862-1921) provided the ornament which includes Hercules over the front door. (You can tell it’s Herc because he’s wearing the skin of the Nemean lion he killed, with its head as a helmet.)

Hercules is flanked by the most fearsome griffins (also spelled “griffons” and “gryphons”) I’ve ever seen.

But the building seems empty—the main floor looked especially empty although there were lots of lights on, including some very impressive chandeliers. All that high-powered mythological help going to waste…

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