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Columbus Coat of Arms
Columbus Coat of Arms

Columbus' Coat of Arms

At the time of the dedication of the Hispanic Room, the mural adorning its south wall, depicting the coat of arms of Christopher Columbus and following a broad design developed by the architect of the room, Paul Philippe Cret, had not yet been commissioned. After deciding on the overall design for the mural and giving much consideration to the techniques with which it could be executed, Cret became interested in the use of stainless steel. His interest became known to the executives of the Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corp. of Pittsburgh, Pa., who saw in the project not only the opportunity to experiment with the use of stainless steel but also the chance to contribute to better inter-American understanding. They therefore generously offered not only to provide the steel for the mural but to provide the artist to paint it. The gift, an unusual gesture of Latin American friendship on the part of a group of U.S. businessmen, was dedicated on May 27, 1940.

At the time of its dedication, the work was said to be the first example of a mural on steel in any building. In preparing it, the steel was incised in all those sections that were to be covered by paint, and the paint itself, which was oil based, was applied in several coats, after which the whole was covered with a protective varnish. The basic advantages of this medium were that it offered a surface that could be detached and moved at will and that backgrounds of extreme brilliance would be achieved.

The artist commissioned for the project by Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corp. executives was Mrs. Buell Mullen of Chicago. Mrs. Mullen had previously painted portraits of various public figures and musicians on metal and had also decorated specially designed trains for the Chicago Burlington and Missouri Pacific railroads.

The focal point of the mural is a large shield representing the coat of arms itself. When the King and Queen ennobled Columbus, the symbols they chose spoke of the high esteem in which they held him. For the first and second quarter of his blazon they granted him nothing less than the royal arms of Castille and León, the castle and the lion; his third quarter was to be "a few islands and sea-waves," and the last "your arms which you used to wear." In that Columbus' family had been one of manual laborers, the words "used to wear" have led to much speculation and debate. Still it was not unusual for commoners to claim affiliation, either real or fanciful, to a blazon-bearing family, and there is evidence that, as an admiral, Columbus did just that.

Under circumstances that have never been fully explained, Columbus altered the original royal instructions by filling the fourth quarter, not with the colors that "he used to wear," but with the five anchors found on the blazon of the Admiral of Castille. The royal instructions had been to place "his" arms last, in the fourth quarter. These he relegated to a fifth division, implying perhaps the merely formal nature of his claim to them.

In the artist's rendering of the coat of arms, one finds, at the lower extremity, a blue band diagonally crossing a field of gold and surmounted by a cap of red -- symbols from the Columbus family's original coat of arms. Above that and to the right are the five anchors Columbus added to the design granted by the King and Queen, and, to the left, golden isles resting on a silver and azure sea. At the top of the shield and to the right is the symbol of León. For the mural, the lion has been rendered in burgundy, though the original designated color was purple. To its left is a golden castle, representing the second of the two kingdoms united under Isabel. This lies on a field of green, corresponding to the instructions of the original decree of Ferdinand and Isabel, rather than the red subsequently mandated by Charles the Fifth.

Above the shield the artist has placed the words "Por Castilla y por León," and below it the words "Nuevo mundo halló Colón" [For Castille and for León, Columbus found a new world], a slight variation of a slogan added to the coat of arms by the descendants of Columbus. Completing the design, green and blue scrolls have been placed in the right- and left-hand fields of the mural, and a geometrical band of leaves serves as an outer border.

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  July 15, 2010
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