Sayles Library Reliefs by Lee Lawrie


Adorning the front façade of the Deborah Cook Sayles Public Library are six bas-reliefs designed by famed sculptor Lee Lawrie and carved by Hugh Cairns. The pieces are beautiful examples of Beaux-Arts Classicism in transition to Art Deco at the turn of the century, by an expert artist and craftsman at the onset of an illustrative career. They depict scenes from literary and religious tradition across a swath of the great civilizations of the ancient and emerging modern world.

Starting from the far left facing the entrance of the library, Lawrie illustrates in the first relief a scene from Nibelungenlied, an epic poem from the Teutonic tradition in which Wotan, the supreme god of pre-Christian Germanic mythology, causes Brünnhilde to fall into a deep and enchanted sleep. The next one exhibits representations of Anglo-Saxon culture, including Shakespeare and King Arthur. To the right, from Italian literature, is a scene from Dante’s Inferno—Virgil leading Dante through Hell on his quest toward divine purity and love.

Across the front doors of the library, the reliefs continue with Roman and Hebraic images of law and justice—Moses carrying the tablets of the 10 commandments and another figure as a representation of Roman law and wisdom. One more to the right, three Greek figures stand in as symbols for architecture, war, and epic poetry. Lastly, two Egyptian figures are sculpted as symbols of delicacy and elaboration, according to one history of the library.

The reliefs represent the first ever commission won by Lawrie, a German sculptor and architect who later went on to complete over 300 more commissions throughout the United States as one of the country’s foremost architectural sculptors. In addition to teaching sculpture at Yale and architecture at Harvard, his artistic career spanned 69 years. His most famous work, Atlas at New York City’s Rockefeller Center, is a cultural icon. Lawrie died on January 23, 1963, at the age of 85.

Todd Stong

Elizabeth Johnson Pawtucket History Research Center at the Deborah Cooke Sayles Pawtucket Public Library



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