Overlooked No More: Emma Stebbins, Who Sculpted an Angel of New York

The eight-foot-tall angel stands with one foot outstretched upon the upper basin of the fountain, wings spread wide and robes flowing behind her. In one hand, she holds a lily, while the other is extended in a gesture of benediction. The basin on which she stands shelters four cherubs representing health, purity, temperance and peace.

Stebbins based the angel on the biblical figure Bethesda, who imbues a pool of water with healing powers; it was conceived as a tribute to the Croton Aqueduct, which brought fresh water to the city beginning in 1842.

“An angel descending to bless the water for healing,” Stebbins wrote in the program for the sculpture’s unveiling, “seems not inappropriate in connection with a fountain; for, although we have not the sad groups of blind, halt and withered waiting to be healed by the miraculous advent of the angel, we have no less healing, comfort and purification, freely sent to us through the blessed gift of pure, wholesome water, which to all the countless homes of this great city, comes like an angel visitant.”

In more recent times, the angel has been visitant in movies like “Enchanted” and “Elf” and in television shows like “Sex and the City.” Perhaps most famously, the fountain served as the setting for the final scene of Tony Kushner’s theatrical masterpiece about AIDS and homophobia during the Reagan era, “Angels in America.” (And it features in the opening credits of the HBO mini-series version of “Angels,” hauntingly lifting her head toward the viewer.)

Kushner did not initially know the sculpture’s history; he chose it, he said in a telephone interview, because it was his favorite place in New York.

“The plaza, the setting and the angel herself — it feels like the center of New York City, and the center of the universe, in a way,” he said. When he discovered that the angel’s sculptor had been gay, he added, it felt like an “auspicious moment of serendipity.”

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