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The Piccirilli Brothers: Master Designers and Carvers of Riverside Church

Updated: May 18

NOTES FOR A DOCUMENTARY FILM | The Piccirilli Brothers' most remarkable contribution to New York is probably the 350 stone and 150 wood carvings they created for Riverside Church. Getulio, Maso, Attilio, and Horatio Piccirilli dedicated three years to this colossal project, assisted by Ferruccio’s son Bruno, a sculptor in his own right.

Photo by Eduardo Montes-Bradley
Riverside Church: Facing Riverside Drive

Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the church's pastor, and the trustees of Riverside Church determined the subjects for the carvings and windows. Their plan was both daring and unorthodox from an ecclesiastical perspective. They sought to honor not only prominent Christian figures but also great minds from various fields—thinkers, doctors, humanitarians, and creators of beauty.

The result of this idealistic and unusual plan is evident in the statuary, chancel screen panels, stained-glass windows, and wood carvings. These elements preserve the likenesses of influential figures from diverse creeds, races, and achievements in stone, glass, and wood for as long as the church stands.

Visitors to this towering structure on the Hudson River find a paradox: while it resembles an old cathedral, its details and decorations recognize the secular and even the once presumed heretic.

The first striking contrast is the main doorway facing Riverside Drive. It appears to be a traditional cathedral entrance, with a tympanum adorned with saints. However, a closer look reveals a story in stone that embodies the church's broad vision. At the center is Christ, surrounded by Apostles, saints, and angels. But the stone allegory extends to great minds of humanity, as reflected in the inscription:

"Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killeth the prophets and stoneth them that are sent unto her! How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!"

This inclusive theme places scientists, often seen as religion's adversaries, alongside canonical figures of Christianity. Here, one finds statues of Darwin, Galileo, Hippocrates, Euclid, Newton, Faraday, Pasteur, Lister, and Einstein—the latter a Jew and one of the few living figures included, recognized as indispensable among the greatest scientists.

The philosophers' arch presents a similarly diverse array: Emerson beside Spinoza, Thomas Aquinas next to Kant, Socrates, Epicurus, Epictetus, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus, all honored for their contributions to human thought.

The Arch of Religion honors not only Christian figures like Christ, Martin Luther, Calvin, John Bunyan, John Milton, St. Francis of Assisi, and Dante but also Moses, Confucius, Buddha, and Mohamed, reflecting a broad spiritual inclusivity.

The chancel screen is another notable feature, with seven panels representing physicians, prophets, teachers, humanitarians, missionaries, reformers, and lovers of beauty. Each panel includes Christ, symbolically embracing all these roles. Figures like Luke, Hippocrates, Pasteur, Lister, Robert Koch, and Albert Einstein are among those honored.

The Stained-Glass Windows

The stained-glass windows complete the narrative and are thus worth mentioning with the sculptures since together they embody a singular and more complete vision of greater inclusion. The ten medallion windows, five on each aisle, depict themes such as Christ and Humanity, Reformers, the Interdependence of Nations, the Development of Music, the Contributions of Scholars, Agricultural Operations, and State and Government.

Riverside Church's decorations honor a wide range of figures for their roles in advancing human progress. A visit to this church offers not only a spiritual experience but also a rich educational journey, appreciating the contributions of those who have carried the torch of progress throughout the ages.

Source: This notes are based on the article published by The Springfield Daily News, Springfield Ohio on December 7, 1930.


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