Paul Manship and His Celestial Sphere

by William A. Gage, Department Head

Paul Manship and His Celestial Sphere



Detail of important and rare “Sagittarius” Bronze by Paul Manship, a relief from a model of his work “Celestial Sphere”

In the early 1930s Paul Manship, one of the foremost, highly respected, and influential American artists of the Art Deco period, set in motion an idea that had been percolating in his mind for many years. Manship was always fascinated by the ancient mythical stories associated with the signs of the Zodiac and the heavenly constellations, and after three years of intense study and work he produced his first “Celestial Sphere.”

The Celestial Sphere represents the sky that surrounds the earth and shows all of the major constellations and symbols of the Zodiac from the world’s major civilizations, both past and present. The sphere itself was initially five feet in diameter having outside circular supports at the equator allowing the sphere to rotate on its polar axis which allowed it to be able to be set for any hour.


The Celestial Sphere Aero Memorial by Paul Manship in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Celestial Sphere Aero Memorial by Paul Manship in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The five foot diameter sphere was perforated with an outside surface made of sixty-six constellations (including the signs of the zodiac) and stars of the first four magnitudes. The whole supported by a blindfolded figure of a woman representing night in a style that recalls both classicism and Art Deco.

Each constellation and zodiacal sign are modeled separately depicting a representational motif including the twelve zodiacal signs with corresponding constellation(s). The inter-relationship of these symbols was designed to create a harmonious ensemble.

The five foot diameter Celestial Sphere was selected to become Aero Memorial in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is located opposite the main entrance of the Franklin Institute and is dedicated to the aviators who perished in World War I.

In 1956, Manship gifted a relief from a model of his Celestial Sphere, a bronze Sagittarius, to his family. In a letter dated July 3, 1956 which accompanied the gift and is addressed to his nephew Will, Paul Manship writes in part, “…from a model of the celestial sphere I made some years ago and represent constellations of the sky – Sagittarius = the zodiacal sign = Nov 22 to Dec 21-22 with the Corona Australis = the little band of stars is the outline of the milky way…curved as to conform to the sphere which is about 5 ft in diameter = I made the sphere larger – about 12 ft, as a Woodrow Wilson Memorial at the Garden of the United Nations Bld. at Geneva Switz.”

The importance of this gift was not lost on Will, who retained and treasured his Sagittarius sculpture. He proudly displayed it over the fireplace mantel in his Minnesota home, where it was enjoyed by several generations of the Manship family and appears faithfully in snapshots taken at family gatherings over the course of many decades. Today the Manship family has decided to place this important piece of American art history into the trusted hands of James D. Julia, Inc. to be included in our upcoming auction in February of 2018.

After developing the five foot version, Manship was not yet finished with the concept of the Celestial Sphere. He reduced the five foot original to a miniature size of 20-inches in diameter, an example of which can be seen at Harvard University’s Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He also would go on to develop a more massive twelve foot version of the sphere.


Sagittarius Bronze by Paul Manship as it was displayed until recently in the Manship family home.
“Sagittarius” Bronze by Paul Manship as it was displayed until recently in the Manship family home. At left is Will Manship (nephew of the artist) and his wife Stella; at right is John Manship (son of the artist).

The board of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation contacted Paul Manship for his ideas for a memorial to the president of the United States Woodrow Wilson (Founding Father of the League of Nations). It was at this time that the Palais des Nations was under construction in Geneva, Switzerland, which was to be the seat of the League of Nations, later re-named as the United Nations.

Manship’s proposal for the Woodrow Wilson Memorial was a large scale Celestial Sphere based on the earlier five foot version. It was to differ from Philadelphia’s Aero Memorial not just in size but also in that the sphere would be supported upon the backs of four tortoises which rest upon a stepped socle bearing a cast representation of the Chinese “Celestial Sea.” This twelve foot diameter version of the sphere was equipped with a motor which would allow it to rotate slowly around an axis turned to the pole star and was intended to be illuminated at night. The sphere was positioned in a small reservoir that would reflect the image of the sphere as well as the building in the water.

The Celestial Sphere Woodrow Wilson Memorial was installed in August of 1939 in a most prestigious location: in the court d’honneur of the Ariana Park at the Palais des Nations. The Celestial Sphere is the pride of Geneva and has adorned a UN Geneva postage stamp as well as a postal card. The twelve foot sphere is adorned with 85 constellations of the universe and 840 stars showing four stars of the first four magnitudes. Today the sphere remains a symbol of peace worldwide and an important landmark for the city of Geneva.

The Sagittarius zodiac sculpture that James D. Julia, Inc. will be offering depicts the centaur (half man, half beast) holding a bow and arrow above which is a title banner “Sagittarius.” Also a banner with “Corona Australis” under a crown depicting the constellation found below Sagittarius in the sky. A string of 15 stars represent the stars of the Milky Way.

Having remained in family hands and never being offered for public sale until now, this important discovery has been vetted and authenticated by Rebecca Reynolds, a Manship scholar and curator who was formerly with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and currently is the board President for the Manship Artists Residency + Studios, as a life-time cast authorized and overseen by Paul Manship. Accompanying the bronze is the aforementioned letter written in Manship’s own hand, dated July 3, 1956.

Sagittarius is the ninth sign of the zodiac. Sagittarians are truth-seekers, they are interested in philosophy and religion. What they want most is to know the meaning of life.

To view the auction item page for the Sagittarius bronze being offered in February of 2018, check out the digital flip book below or click here.