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“Alma Mater” by Daniel Chester French

"Alma Mater" by Daniel Chester French

“Alma Mater” by Daniel Chester French

“Alma Mater” by Daniel Chester French is a female figure draped in an academic gown, she wears a crown of laurels and sits on a throne.

The scroll-like arms of the throne end in lamps, representing “Sapientia and Doctrine” (“Wisdom and Learning”). A book signifying knowledge balances on her lap.

This bronze sculpture is the personification of the traditional image of Columbia University, in Manhattan, New York City, as an alma mater, or “nourishing mother.” 

Her right hand holds a scepter composed of four sprays of wheat, terminating with a crown of King’s College, which refers to Columbia’s origin in 1754 as a royal charter institution.

An owl, the attribute of wisdom and a symbol of knowledge and learning, is hidden in the folds of Alma Mater’s cloak near her left leg. 

Alma Mater has become a symbol of the university, and several traditions and superstitions have developed about this statue since it was installed in 1903.

An example includes the superstition that the first member of the incoming class to find the owl will become class valedictorian.

A New York actress was said to have posed for parts of the sculpture, originally covered in gold leaf. Over time, the gilding wore off, and the few remaining flakes were removed in 1950.

In 1962, the University decided to have the gilding reapplied; however, the new gilding was removed after student protests.

The sculpture is located on the steps leading to the Low Memorial Library on the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University. 

During the Columbia University protests in the late 1960s, a bomb damaged the sculpture in 1970. The resulting explosion caused significant damage to Alma Mater’s throne.

The sculpture was removed from Columbia, and the throne was recast, and the sculpture was cleaned, refinished with a new patina, and returned to its popular location.

Alma Mater

“Alma Mater” is an allegorical Latin phrase for a university or college that one formerly attended. In general English usage, it can also mean the school from which one graduated.

The phrase is translated as a “nourishing mother,” suggesting that a school provides intellectual nourishment to its students.

Before its current usage, alma mater was an honorific title for various Latin mother goddesses, especially Ceres or Cybele, and later in Catholicism for the Virgin Mary.

The phrase entered academic usage when the University of Bologna adopted the motto Alma Mater Studiorum (“nurturing mother of studies”). The University of Bologna is the oldest operating university in the Western world and influenced many other universities.

The Latin “Alma Mater” phrase is related to “Alumnus” and the plural “Alumni” for a university graduate that literally means a “nursling” or “one who is nourished.”

The Owl of Athena

In Greek mythology, a little owl traditionally represents or accompanies Athena, the virgin goddess of wisdom.

The bird is often referred to as the “Owl of Athena” and has been used as a symbol of knowledge and wisdom throughout the Western world.

The association between the owl and the goddess continued through Minerva in Roman mythology. 

Columbia University

Columbia University is a private Ivy League university in New York City. Established in 1754, it is the oldest institution of higher education in New York 

It is one of nine colonial colleges founded before the Declaration of Independence, seven of which belong to the Ivy League.

The university’s endowment is over $10 billion, among the largest of any academic institution.

“Alma Mater” – Columbia University, in Manhattan, New York City – Virtual Tour

Daniel Chester French

Daniel Chester French (1850 – 1931) was an American sculptor best known for his design of the monumental statue of Abraham Lincoln (1920) in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC.

In 1893, French was a founding member of the National Sculpture Society, and he was appointed a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1913.

He was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He was a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor and was awarded a medal of honor from the Paris Exposition of 1900.

He was a founding member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, including as chairman from 1912 to 1915.

Alma Mater

Daniel Chester French

“Alma Mater” by Daniel Chester French

​A Virtual Tour of Public Art

Alma Mater sculpture

Alma Mater Gets a Facelift

The Life and Art of Daniel Chester French


“As a graduate student at Columbia University, I remember the a priori derision of my distinguished stratigraphy professor toward a visiting Australian drifter [a supporter of the theory of continental drift]. Today my own students would dismiss with even more derision anyone who denied the evident truth of continental drift – a prophetic madman is at least amusing; a superannuated fuddy-duddy is merely pitiful.”
– Stephen Jay Gould


Photo Credit: Daniel Chester French, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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