The Pillars of Herakles

Mosaics by Hildreth Meiére

The work featured three panels: a center panel depicting Herakles’ passage through the Strait of Gibraltar, and two side panels featuring the Pillars of Herakles.

Commissioned in 1960 by the Prudential Insurance Company of America, Meière’s triptych mural once adorned the lobby of the company’s headquarters in Newark, NJ. Working in concert with Meière, a fabrication team led by mosaicist Anthony Schiavo meticulously placed over 46,000 individual tiles, cut from at least twelve types of marble, for each panel.

Full Meiere Triptic as on display in the Prudential Headquarters

The mural remained in place until 1999, when it was removed and placed in storage. While in storage, the panels sustained some damage. After discussions with Catherine Coleman Brawer and representatives from institutions including Prudential, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, and the International Hildreth Meière Association, Schiavo agreed to lead the panels’ restoration.

Upon restoration, the center panel was donated to the Newark Museum. In 2011 Thomas Luebke, Secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, suggested that the Center for Hellenic Studies be the home of the two remaining panels, and Director Gregory Nagy enthusiastically welcomed the addition. The two panels were installed in the Spring of 2014.

Mosaicists working to restore the right mosaic

The Pillars of Heracles

In Greek mythology the Pillars indicated the limit of the known world: “grasping the Pillars” was a metaphor for reaching the ultimate in human achievement. For mere mortals, they marked the end of the journey, the point at which one must turn back. Herakles’ journey beyond the Pillars, during his Tenth Labor, came to represent a heroic and unending quest for knowledge, and the Pillars became not a point of retreat, but a gateway to the unknown.

Homecoming

For the Greeks, a homecoming, or nostos, could be associated with an awakening of consciousness and even a “return to light and life.” Gregory Nagy, the Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, sees echoes of these themes in the imagery of the Center’s mosaics and in their new location in the heart of the Center’s library. The symbolism of the Pillars and their return from obscurity to public view perfectly express the mission of the Center and its own unending quest for knowledge.
hildrethmeiere.org

About the Artist

(1892 – 1961)

Hildreth Meiere

A distinguished Art Deco muralist, painter, and decorative artist, Hildreth Meière was a highly influential figure in American architectural decoration during the 1930s and ’40s. Her balance of traditional symbols and narratives, and willingness to push limits place her in the ranks of a very small number of female artists whose achievements gained recognition in the established art world during the first half of the 20th century.

Of the approximately 100 commissions Meière designed, her best-known include Radio City Music Hall, One Wall Street, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Temple Emanu-El, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. She also decorated the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, and the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.

Meière was the first woman to be honored with the Fine Arts Medal of the American Institute of Architects in 1956. The citation for the award praised not only her artistic skill, but also her ability to collaborate with craftsmen and architects in ways that made her works seemingly indivisible from their surroundings.

For more information, see The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière by Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik (New York: Andrea Monfried Editions, 2014) or visit the website hildrethmeiere.org.

More Meiére in Washington, DC

Dome and pendentives, 1924
National Academy of Sciences, Great Hall

Exterior frieze, 1941
Municipal Center, West Interior Courtyard

Half dome apse, 1951
Washington National Cathedral, Chapel of Resurrection

Hildreth Meière Papers (not on public view)
Smithsonian Archives of American Art

Acknowledgements

The restoration of the panels was underwritten by the Ruth Dayton Foundation.

The Pillars of Herakles right panel, 1960 in marble mosaic from Prudential Plaza lobby by Hildreth Meière photograph © 2013 Hildreth Meière Dunn

The Pillars of Herakles left panel, 1960 in marble mosaic from Prudential Plaza lobby by Hildreth Meière photograph © 2013 Hildreth Meière Dunn

Additional color images © 2013 Hildreth Meière Dunn

Black and white images courtesy of the Hildreth Meière Family Collection