timberland boots on sale How many of these hidden symbols can you find in Birmingham
When you hit that pothole on 18th Street North, try to have some sympathy for our city’s most famous icon: Vulcan. When the 23 foot tall Electra was hoisted atop the Alabama Power building in 1926, Birmingham’s other scantily clad statue was reportedly smitten, and ran down the street to meet the new girl in town. He left his footprints as proof, according to a Birmingham Post satirist, ironically calling himself Dr. Conner (pre dating the less humorous and more notorious Bull Connor by 10 years).
Every day, we pass by carvings, statues, and murals without thinking about their origins or meanings. Birmingham hosts a myriad of art: from the pagan fountain to our own Nike and we don’t mean shoes. After all, it wouldn’t be much of a Magic City if a few magical beings didn’t call it home.
Mythologically speaking, Vulcan suffered the ultimate unhappy marriage when the love goddess Venus was forced to marry him, the notoriously ugly God of the Forge. He was so unappealing, his legendarily grumpy goddess mother known as Hera or Juno tossed him off of Mount Olympus as a baby, breaking his leg. Many in town have commented on Vulcan’s off kilter proportions and not so handsome face, but it goes with the territory for this homely Olympian. Who can blame him for trying to woo the golden girl?
The gold leaved lady stands with lightning bolts shooting from her crown and holds bolts ready to be pitched from her hands. The Alabama Power board dumped plans for a big sign and opted for a statute to represent a state rising through electrical progress. Her name means “bright one” in Greek, interpreted by the power company as “Divinity of Light.”
As a Vulcan paramour, Electra comes with her own baggage: matricide. Electra helped her brother, Orestes, kill their mother, who had killed their father, King Agamemnon, Greek leader of the Trojan War. With such tragic back stories, these two deserve a late night snuggle or two, as long as they are back on their pedestals by dawn.
No word on whether the Liberty Park Statue of Liberty ever held a torch for the big guy. The official name for the one fifth scale replica of New York’s version is “Liberty Enlightening the World.” The former downtown Birmingham lady moved to Vestavia in 1989.
Vulcan should have returned triumphant from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, having captured the grand prize in his class, but instead he was left in pieces. We had spurned the offers of San Francisco, Portland, and St. Louis all three wanted to purchase the world’s largest cast iron statue. Once we chose to keep him, no one had a clue what to do with him. The downtown ladies grew faint at the idea of his bare bum standing in Linn Park, which was then surrounded by fancy mansions. Ultimately, the pieces of Vulcan were gathered, and the mighty iron man was condemned to wear a giant pair of Liberty overalls as an advertisement at the Alabama State Fairgrounds until he found his current home atop Red Mountain.
While delicate sensibilities may have prevailed regarding Vulcan’s derriere, the same standards appear to have faded when the birthday suited Electra was raised 20 years later with less of a stir. Below Electra, three carvings of two men and a woman represent Power, Light, and Heat.
Electra was followed shortly by semi nude ladies featured in the Linn Henley Research Library murals. Shahrazad, the more exposed Pocahontas, and thinly veiled Isis, escaped Victorian standards lingering in the Gilded Age of the late 1920s. These venerable characters of fact and fiction join a painted panoply of characters who loom large in literature and wall space. A more modest array of storybook characters decorate the walls of the children’s room.
Around the corner, a dragon stretches across the side of Boutwell Auditorium for an artful view from the Birmingham Museum of Art. Created by City Center Art, Space One Eleven’s youth program, this dragon rises from Birmingham’s industrial past. With healthcare, banking, and education dominating the old Steel City’s economy, this dragon rides in from an Eastern bent, where flying lizards represent prosperity, abundance, and good fortune.
Eagles fly along the Rainbow Bridge, also known as the 21st Street Viaduct. These iron birds replaced the original 1919 concrete statues dedicated to the famed World War I 167th Infantry Regiment, the “Rainbow Division.” These bold Alabama soldiers captured German soldiers, along with a long list of medals and honors. As the highest flying bird, the eagle connects with the divine, honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Where eagles appear, they represent freedom and courage.
On the nearby 18th Street tunnel, the art deco eagles of 1931 are soaring against a very different enemy, the Great Depression. Eagles guard other 1931 structures, most famously the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. Art deco borrowed liberally from the ancient Greeks, who associated the eagle with top god, Zeus. When Zeus faced the formidable Titans, an eagle flew by a good omen. The people of Birmingham certainly needed good news as the Depression hit Alabama harder than most of the nation.
The Greeks reappear in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. A deconstructed winged Nike presides over the Hill Garden with its reflecting pond. As the shoe logo might suggest, she is the goddess of speed, strength, and victory so take a run in the Gardens. To the left of the Southern Living Garden, little Echo stares forlornly into a frog inhabited pond. A chatty girl, Echo made the tragic mistake of covering for the antics of the randy Zeus, causing his wife, Hera (see Vulcan), to condemn her to repeat the words of others. It’s hard for a girl like that to get a date, but the vain Narcissus was interested. When he fell in love with his own reflection, he transformed into the popular Jonquil flower and Echo looks eternally into the pool, searching for her lost love.
The steel curves of the sculpture in the Alys Stephens Center Plaza depict the ultimate steel magnolia. When her lover, star of Henrich von Kleist’s “Der Prinz von Hamburg,” receives a death sentence, the Prinzessin Natalie saves the hero when she encourages his release by calling out her army of Dragoons. In true operatic drama, the Prinz is led to the gallows only to find himself in a medieval version of a shotgun wedding, but at least one that is welcomed, and certainly more so than death. The Prinzessin is now memorialized in the abstract piece crafted by Frank Stella.
In Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham has erected a number of statues clearly representing major events in the Civil Rights Movement. The children stand behind bars to represent the Children’s March; the fire hoses perpetually stand ready; and the police dogs menace. At the corner, three pastors kneel in prayer. You might think one of them is Martin Luther King, Jr., but you would be wrong. King, his little brother, who during a tense protest calling for revenge, jumped on a car and said, “If you are going to kill someone, then kill me!” The other two pastors are John Porter, then pastor of Sixth Street Baptist Church and Nelson Smith, then pastor of New Pilgrim Baptist Church. The trio knelt together after a Palm Sunday march on April 7, 1963. These less celebrated pastors symbolize the efforts of dozens of church leaders to fulfill the mission of the Movement.
Surrounding the statute are four broken columns, representing the ultimate sacrifice of the four girls who lost their lives in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. At the opposite end, a new statute shows four girls releasing birds into the air, symbolizing the release of the spirits of the four young martyrs.
In the creepiest building damage, the 16th Street bomb only knocked out the face of Jesus in the stained glass window. This image was broadcast worldwide. A campaign of small donations in Wales paid for an artist to create a new window featuring a black figure with arms stretched wide. The right hand pushes away
injustice, the left hand opens for forgiveness. A rainbow crown depicts human diversity and God’s promise.
Inside the Jefferson County Courthouse the plantation esque wall murals draw controversy, but it is the outside carvings that mystify. How did swastikas on the front columns survive World War II without defacement? The Courthouse was built in 1931, years before Hitler and the Nazi Party hijacked an ancient symbol used in Asia, Africa, Europe, and in the Americas dating back to pre history in some cultures. The symbol remains important in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in Asia.
Meanwhile, the most controversial of Birmingham’s public art works began with a murder. An art dealer specializing in pre Columbian art died from a shotgun blast fired by an industrial painter. The dealer’s mother asked sculptor Frank Fleming to honor her son with an art installation in the Five Points Circle. What started as a simple tile rim encircling a garden morphed into the Storyteller Fountain, often called the Pagan or Satanic Fountain. The artist vigorously asserts that it depicts nothing more than a peaceful gathering of woodland creatures gathered in a Southern storytelling tradition, like Br’er Rabbit.
Less charitable folks cite a satanic horned god, often pictured as a ram, which dates back to ancient Egyptian mythology. In pagan religions, horned gods, such as the Greek nature god Pan, sport horns and a lusty appetite for fertility rites.
Cloven hoofs, which peek out from the storyteller’s pants, reveal more devilish hints pointing to Satan. The official newsletter of the Church of Satan is named The Cloven Hoof. It doesn’t help that Satanists and Neopagans actually do worship a horned, hooved god. An upended pentagram, indicating the overturning of order, generally pops up in devil and pagan rites, making the choice of five frogs in the fountain a suspicious coincidence for some.
On a positive note, the ram symbolizes leadership, determination, and action. The fountain’s true meaning, like many urban legends, is left up to interpretation.
In all art, there is thought behind the image and a message to be found. Many hidden jewels with veiled meanings await discovery throughout Birmingham. So, the next time you pass a sculpture, mural, or other work of art, take a minute to visit with its history and its meaning, and remember, there’s more to the Magic City than meets the eye.