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Metropolitan Museum exhibition celebrates Central Park obelisk known as "Cleopatra's Needle"
Nicolas Béatrizet (French, Lunéville 1515–ca. 1566 Rome?), After Pirro Ligorio (Italian, Naples 1513–1583 Ferrara), Published by Michele Tramezzino (Italian, active Venice and Rome, 1526–61), A reconstruction of the stadium and its obelisks at Circus Maximus, 1553. Engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1941 (41.72(1.67)). Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

NEW YORK, NY.- Since 1881, an ancient Egyptian monument—the obelisk of Pharaoh Thutmose III, popularly known as “Cleopatra’s Needle”—has stood in New York’s Central Park, a gift to the City of New York from the khedives of Egypt. It is the only monumental obelisk from ancient Egypt in the United States. The obelisk can be seen from several vantage points within The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is located nearby. As the Central Park Conservancy begins to develop a plan to conserve the monument, the Metropolitan Museum is presenting an exhibition about the construction and evolving symbolism of obelisks from antiquity to the present day. The exhibition Cleopatra’s Needle opened December 3.

The exhibition features objects from the Museum’s Egyptian Art Department and a selection of prints, textiles, and other works of art from the departments of Drawings and Prints, European Paintings, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Photographs, and The American Wing. Nine additional works from the Brooklyn Museum, American Numismatic Society, Chancellor Robert R Livingston Masonic Library of Grand Lodge, Museum of the City of New York, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and private collections, most of which are seldom on display, also are included. A highlight of the installation is a dramatic time-lapse video of the obelisk in Central Park taken during the course of a day.

Obelisks originated in ancient Egypt and—like statues—were intended to house divine powers, even the spirit of a king or god. They were placed at the entrance of temples and tombs, where their presence was believed to radiate protection. The obelisk was a solar symbol and its soaring form connected the earth to the sky. Its tip, often sheathed in gold to suggest the sun, was a pyramidion, a shape sacred to Re, the sun god. The exhibition includes a five-foot-high obelisk from the entrance to an ancient Egyptian mortuary chapel devoted to sacred rams.

The obelisk in Central Park is one of a pair—each of which has come to be called “Cleopatra’s Needle”—originally installed by Thutmose III (r. ca. 1479–1425 B.C.) in front of the sun temple in Heliopolis, the ancient Egyptian city dedicated to the sun god Re. Over time, both obelisks toppled. Discoloration indicates that they may have also been burned in antiquity, and that exposure to the elements eroded some of the hieroglyphs. Augustus Caesar (63 B.C.–14 A.D.) took the two obelisks to Alexandria and installed them at the Caesareum, the temple built by Cleopatra VII to honor the deified Julius Caesar. (This episode may explain how the name of Cleopatra became attached to these two obelisks.) The Romans recognized the solar imagery of obelisks and connected them to their own sun god, Sol. For Augustus, the link may have been personal as well, since Apollo, another Roman sun god, was his patron deity. Included in the exhibition is a late 16th-century map and a late 17th-century Dutch watercolor, both showing the obelisk standing in Alexandria.

Egypt became a province of Rome under Augustus Caesar, and many artifacts—including numerous obelisks—were taken from Egypt to Rome. Some four centuries later, when Rome was sacked and the Roman Empire fell, all but one of the obelisks toppled, victims of vandalism or earthquakes, and were buried and forgotten.

The rediscovery of these objects during the Renaissance renewed popular interest in antiquities. Several popes organized new building projects in Rome around the ancient Egyptian monuments. There, obelisks were often placed at the center of public squares, such as the one in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Domenico Fontana (1543–1607), an engineer in the service of Pope Sixtus V, raised at least four obelisks in public places. Through this connection with the Vatican, the obelisk became a symbol of eternal papal power. The exhibition includes drawings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) that show obelisks in the Piazza della Rotonda and Piazza del Popolo.

Obelisks continued to be regarded as powerful symbols of an ancient civilization, and scholars in Europe began to study their inscriptions in the 16th and 17th centuries to understand the secret knowledge they believed obelisks held. The monuments were used in drawings and paintings to indicate a connection to antiquity, establish a harmonious landscape, or communicate the concept of eternity. Not only were obelisks used in landscape scenes—as in the drawings of Rembrandt or Francesco Guardi on view in the exhibition—but also in actual funerary monuments where the connection to eternity was most important. An example is the catafalque designs of the Italian theatrical designer Giuseppe Galli Bibiena (1696–1757).

The association between obelisks and eternity remained widely accepted, and obelisk forms began to be used as tomb markers in the early 18th century in America. A silk painting by a Connecticut schoolgirl shows such a tomb marker. The obelisk form also became a popular for war memorials, as recorded in a photograph of the General William Jenkins Worth Monument located on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

In the late 19th century, after Khedive Ismail offered the United States the obelisk of Thutmose III as a gift, U.S. Navy engineer Lieutenant-Commander Henry Honeychurch Gorringe (1841–1885) was charged with the task of transporting the monument to New York and installing it in Central Park. He studied drawings made of Fontana’s earlier work—one of which will be on display—to learn how the feat had been accomplished in earlier times. Gorringe successfully lowered the obelisk in Alexandria, Egypt, and loaded it after some difficulty into the hold of his ship the S.S. Dessoug.

Unloading the monument in New York was no easy task. It took nearly six months to move the obelisk from the dock in Staten Island to the East River at 96th Street, and finally to Central Park. On October 9, 1880, a crowd of 9,000 Freemasons led a parade to Central Park for a cornerstone ceremony for the foundation platform of the obelisk, which had also been brought from Egypt. The baton carried in that parade by the Grand Secretary of the New York Grand Lodge Edward M. L. Ehlers is on view in the exhibition. On January 22, 1881, after months of effort, the obelisk reached its destination, Greywacke Knoll in Central Park. Gorringe carried out his task perfectly and the obelisk rose into position. He received a gold medal to commemorate his amazing feat.

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