The “Celestial Sphere” is the large, metal sculpture located at the Palais des Nations on the Cour d’honneur easily viewed both from the UN Cafeteria and upstairs in the Assembly Hall from the Salle des pas perdus. The Celestial Sphere was installed in 1939 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the founding of the League of Nations and to honour the leadership of American President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), who received the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in establishing the League. The sculpture’s full name is “Celestial Sphere – Woodrow Wilson Memorial.”
The Celestial Sphere is the masterwork of Paul H. Manship (1885-1966), an American sculptor associated with the Art Deco style. Manship made the work in the United States in plaster components that were then shipped to the Bruno Bearzi Fonderia in Florence, Italy, where the sculpture was cast and assembled.
The Palais des Nations was constructed beginning in 1929 and completed in 1938. Bruno Bearzi and two workmen came from Italy to install the Celestial Sphere. The task took about a week, beginning on 30 August 1939 and completed on 7 September 1939. Of course, during that week, on 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, an event that even contemporaries recognized was the beginning of the Second World War. Bearzi and his colleagues completed their work before returning to Italy for the coming war.
The restoration of the “Celestial Sphere” is made possible by the generosity of a private donor. Rules established by the General Assembly preclude the UN from using its general funds to acquire art or to repair it. Funds have been raised for limited repairs over the years, this will be the first complete conservation program for the Celestial Sphere in its almost 840 years of existence.
The Celestial Sphere Restoration Project is complex. Engineering and art preservation evaluations have been completed. The project embraces not only the conservation of the sculpture itself, but also the restoration of the reflecting pool, installation of lighting and the redesign of the landscaping around the sculpture. Many people know that the Celestial Sphere rotated when it was first installed. The rotating mechanism was idled during the Second World War and never again worked well. It was disabled decades ago. The current project intends to restore the sculpture’s capacity to rotate.
The restoration will include the cleaning and re-gilding of the 64 cast bronze statuettes of mythical figures representing constellations that originally adorned the sculpture. The Celestial Sphere originally boasted 810 silver stars located on the sculpture with astronomical accuracy by the artist. Many of these stars have been lost over time, and all of them remaining are tarnished to black. Under the project, the missing stars will be replaced and the silver colour restored to all of them. The aesthetic goal of the project is to restore the Celestial Sphere to the way it looked when it was first installed. Once restored, the sculpture will sparkle and shine in a way not seen for many years.
In addition, the Cour d’honneur will be regraded, resulting in the terrain around the Celestial Sphere and its reflecting pool being elevated about one (1) meter. This presentation of the Celestial Sphere draws from landscape ideas originally proposed by the artist in 1939. Admire the artist’s rendering of a vision of the restored Celestial Sphere included in this exhibition.
The project work will be performed by contractors selected in public bidding. The total cost of the project will be unclear until the bidding is completed.
The Celestial Sphere will be disassembled as part of the restoration project. Disassembly is expected to occur by early 2019, and the sculpture will be absent from the Cour d’honneur for several months, being reinstalled in late 2019 or early 2020. The unveiling of the restored Celestial Sphere will be a part of a broader celebration of the centennial of the founding of the League of Nations in 2019-2020.
The “Celestial Sphere,” as intended by the sculptor, has long been a symbol of international cooperation and the quest for world peace. Today it is one of the most readily recognized symbols of the United Nations and International Geneva.
The Celestial Sphere is in the ancient shape of an armillary sphere, long recognized in many cultures and traditions. It depicts the heavens as seen from Earth, with the constellations presented as cast bronze representations of figures from classical mythology. The Celestial Sphere was designed to rotate on an axis that is set on Polaris, the “North Star,” so that the movement of the stars as the sculpture rotates duplicates the movement of the stars in the sky as the Earth rotates.
The restoration of the Celestial Sphere as a historic work of art harmonizes with the mission of the United Nations and with the motivation underlying the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: Working for peace, rights and well-being. The preamble of the UN Charter identifies as its first goal “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is the practical plan to accomplish many tasks that will together contribute to the realization of a peaceful world.
Any serious work of art is open to many interpretations. In using a celestial theme for a Woodrow Wilson Memorial for the headquarters of the League of Nations, surely Manship was inviting all of us to cast our eyes to the stars and aspire for world peace. World peace cannot be simply achieved in 1919 with the creation of the League of Nations or in 1945 with the creation of the United Nations. It is something that humanity must work toward every day. The Celestial Sphere is a symbol to be embraced by all who work for the UN or for International Geneva and by all around the world who hope for the UN’s success. Perhaps as a symbol and a work of art it conveys ideas that are even beyond expression in words.