Peace Fountain-Cathedral St John the Divine-Decapitated Satan-Giraffes-DNA-NYC

If you have ever visited the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, you may have noticed a bizarre sculpture in the courtyard next door to the Cathedral. The Peace Fountain, as the sculpture is called, located at the corner of West 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, is immensely confounding and provocative. Built in 1985 by the Cathedral Artist-in-Residence Greg Wyatt, the forty-foot high Bronze sculpture consists of a crab, the decapitated head of Satan, the double helix of DNA, and nine giraffes!

A plaque at the base of the fountain provides a glimpse of insight into the meaning of this elusive sculpture:

Peace Fountain celebrates the triumph of Good over Evil, and sets before us the world’s opposing forces – violence and harmony, light and darkness, life and death – which God reconciles in his peace.

Peace Fountain-Cathedral St John the Divine-Decapitated Satan-Giraffes-DNA-NYC-Plaque

Here one might pause and ask how a crab and nine giraffes reference Good and Evil. Similar to deciphering a secret code, breaking down the sculpture into its individual components is necessary. The pedestal at the base of the sculpture is shaped like the double helix of DNA – “the key molecule of life.” Atop the pedestal rests a giant crab, to remind us of life’s origins in the sea and the struggle to survive.

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An inquisitive moon faces west, reflecting tranquility, in contrast to a joyous sun facing east. Perhaps the moon is meant to evoke darkness and death, and the sun lightness and life. Although difficult to spot, nestled beneath the sun are a lion and lamb, representing peace as foretold by the prophet Isaiah, as revealed by the plaque.

At the pinnacle of the sculpture, the winged Archangel Michael, representing good, uses his sword to decapitate Satan, whose head dangles beneath the crab’s claw. Swirling around the sculpture are nine giraffes, described on the plaque as the “most peaceable of animals.” One of the giraffes rests its head on the Archangel Michael’s chest. The final mystery which remains, and that cannot be answered by the description on the plaque, is why the nine giraffes?

Generally, the term Good over Evil evokes such images as David and Goliath, or Spiderman battling his stark nemesis, the Green Goblin. Perhaps Wyatt’s thinking in designing the Peace Fountain was to step away from the standard imagery of Good versus Evil and to challenge the viewer to see Good and Evil in terms of two greater invisible forces–harmony and chaos, light and darkness, peace and struggle. From a different standpoint, without delving too far in depth, the themes of good and evil echo the concept of yin and yang, and bring forth the question of whether opposite forces are opposing or in fact complementary–but that is for a deeper discussion.

Around the fountain are a series of small bronze sculptures created by K-12 students in New York City and the Tri-State area, which form the Children’s Sculpture Garden. The sculptures illustrate a variety of subjects, ranging from famous icons, such as Einstein, Socrates, and Gandhi, to mythical beasts and demons. To add to the curious nature of the sculpture garden, peacocks wander the premises, including a white peacock who has the distinction of having his own Twitter handle.

See more quirky NYC facts and discoveries in our “Daily What?!” series. Submit your own via Twitter with the hashtag #DailyWhat.