White House Wednesday | Behind the Stanchions | Hera & Athena

By Bryce VanStavern
White House Specialist

The White House of the Confederacy is filled with interesting items. The overwhelming majority of them are displayed in rooms that are shown during tours, allowing visitors a close look. This makes it easy for them to ask about things they see that may interest them.

Some items are in spaces that tours just walk by without stopping. Among these spaces are the stairs. Tours go up and down the stairs in the house without stopping. Along the way, visitors pass by two small statues in niches in the wall between the first and second floors.

These statues are not talked about during tours, but visitors often ask about them. They typically inquire for one primary reason: their arms are gone.

The statues depict the Greek goddesses Hera and Athena. Their arms (well, most of their arms) are missing. Why? Hera and Athena are original items in the home and reflect its original neoclassical decorating style. As with the Entrance Hall, the original stairs were square in shape. Dr. John Brockenbrough, the home’s first owner, changed the stairs to a spiral early during his residency. Hera and Athena likely went in at this time.

At 34 inches, the statues are not quite three feet tall. They are marble, and there is no definitive answer why their arms are missing. Decorative arts history, however, offers two popular explanations.

First, they were made that way. People decorating in the neoclassical style wanted their statues to look like those found among the ruins in Athens and Rome. Thus, the statues were created with their arms missing. If that is what happened in this case, the artist did great job of mimicking this feature.

The other explanation is that the statues were manufactured with arms, which were later knocked off to give a ruined appearance. This is something the artist could have done or something the statue’s owner might have done himself.

Either explanation provides a plausible reason for the statues’ missing arms. However, we have no idea which explanation--if either--is correct for our pieces. There is yet a third, far less interesting, explanation. That is, they could have been dropped and damaged at some point.

As I have explained in this space, it can be very difficult to answer the, “Why did they,” question. I find it interesting that Dr. Brockenbrough or anyone would want statutes that looked ruined or marred. Perhaps he had seen prints or drawings from Greece or Rome with statues in this condition and just decided to go for that look.

Whatever the explanation, the statues are with us today, leaving visitors and museum staff alike wondering, “Why don’t they have arms?”

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