December 2009 – January 2010
We’re entranced by the miraculous symbols of the season–guiding star, virgin birth, baby savior–the lot of it. It’s the joyous, relentless and unavoidable gift of our Catholic boyhoods. So, when we turned into the wind and faced the wet rain changing to winter’s first snow, headed down Eight Avenue and reached 41st Street we knew that when we discovered the battered model of a chubby baby leg leaning against a street light, it wasn’t just an inexplicably discarded mannequin part, but rather a symbol of holiness and redemption. It was a big baby leg too, 17 inches long, and could have been snatched out of a Carracci with its Baroque line and fat toes. Naturally for us, thoughts immediately turned to cathedrals and crèches. Why had the universe put this fat Carracci baby leg in our path; what was the meaning of it; why us? We squinted against the snow blowing into our eyes and paused for a bit, then snatched it up and hustled along leaving those questions to be pondered later.
At first glance the leg, now known to us as The Relic of 41st Street, appeared to be bronze, but it was too lightweight. Upon closer examination, it didn’t seem to be intentionally patinated, rather the greenish brown hue was probably the result of the aging fiberglass and an accumulation of dirt. There was a translucent quality to the medium and the underlying mesh support was visible in some areas, particularly at the back of the leg. A seam bisects the leg and had been filed smooth, evidenced by crosshatched abrasions. There were scuff marks and paint smears as well. All this brought no significant insight into how the baby leg was used or why it ultimately found a place under a Manhattan street light.
So, what were we to make of our discovery? The modeling of the limb, while naturalistic, seemed a bit worker-like—a prop perhaps. After all, we hadn’t been far from the theatre district. Or maybe hundreds similar were manufactured nearby and featured in department store windows adorned with the latest toddler finery. Although captivated by the stray limb, in trying to imagine it as a complete figure, we couldn’t muster a vision that matched our initial Baroque impression. It was not a precious relic; merely a bit of urban detritus shed curbside. Yet, with all the speculation it generated kicking it back to the curb wouldn’t be a satisfying end. We couldn’t just abandon the misfit; that would run counter to all the folklore of the season, and with that thought we understood what we needed to do.
This holiday we are serving as stewards of The Relic of 41st Street. Alongside the finer, grander displays that bedeck our churches and shops we present it as a symbol of the modest beginnings that mark our salvation. It’s the same Christmas story that will be retold for all time. Through the darkness of these short days, a mere throwaway, the most humble icon can serve to remind us of our potential to generate joy, goodwill, harmony and peace on earth.