The statues that move us

From New York’s iconic Statue of Liberty to the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, these are some of the world’s most captivating statues

  • Apr 13, 2023
  • 1,239 words
  • 5 minutes
The Statue of Liberty, New York. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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It’s my sixth visit to New York but my first time to the Statue of Liberty. My kids demand we visit the most recognizable landmark in the United States, and despite my grumbles that the poor, huddled masses are nowadays more welcome in Canada than in the USA, I relent. 

We navigate the barking guards at the security screening and hop onto a short, crowded ferry to Liberty Island. I’m jet-lagged, the skies spit rain, and even still, Lady Liberty takes my breath away. When it was first unveiled in 1886, Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi’s 46-metre masterpiece was innovative, daring, and the tallest statue in the world. At an excellent museum behind the pedestal, visitors learn about its construction, restoration, and the Statue of Liberty’s enduring legacy of freedom and hope.

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro. (Photo: Pixabay)
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A week later, I’m in Rio de Janeiro, home to another iconic statue intrinsically linked to the identity of Brazil itself. Christ the Redeemer towers above the city, standing 38 metres tall above the lush Corcovado Mountain, with 28-metre-wide arms outstretched in welcome. Built of soapstone and reinforced concrete, it took nine years to build and was completed in 1931. 

Over the decades, this Art Deco giant has survived despots, lightning strikes, erosion, vandals, dubious marketing initiatives (it was named one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’) and hordes of tourists. As with the Statue of Liberty, when you stand on its pedestal overlooking one of the world’s most striking cities, you feel a tangible sense of wonder and geographic accomplishment.

The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen. (Photo: Pixabay)
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Although it’s much smaller than I expected, I felt a similar sense of place when I visited The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. The 1.25-metre bronze statue emanated a distinct sense of location and story. Unveiled in 1913 and inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s iconic tale, our poor mermaid has been frequently vandalized or co-opted into political protests, draped in flags and silly outfits. She’s also inspired various copies around the world (see Moving Canadian Statues below). 

Cloud Gate, Chicago. (Photo: Pixabay)
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Public art often pushes the boundaries and invites no shortage of controversy. Cloud Gate in Chicago divided the public and resembles a giant polished bean, while artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude are famous for wrapping parks and city blocks in fabric.  Meanwhile, historic statues, including Nelson’s Column in London, Christopher Columbus in New York, Captain James Cook in Hyde Park and countless others around the world, have become problematic as personal legacies (which often involve slavery, racism and colonialism) are reassessed.  

Shoes on the Danube, Budapest. (Photo: Pixabay)
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I’m still haunted by my visit to Shoes on the Danube, a collection of bronze shoes frozen at the river’s edge. During the Holocaust, Jewish men, women and children were forced to remove their shoes before being massacred and thrown into the river. Standing in the same place among these permanently-affixed shoes, the violence becomes shockingly visceral. Berlin’s Jewish Museum makes use of voids and spaces to address the Holocaust, incorporating brutal concrete, jarring angles and dark recesses for reflection.  Menashe Kadishman’s Memory Void invites you to physically walk over hundreds of metal faces, each footstep reverberating with a sense of deep internal sorrow. 

In Lithuania, you’ll find a quirky park of derelict Soviet statues gathered by a local collector. It’s not exactly the dustbin of history, but how the mighty have fallen. In Vilnius, I chanced upon a Monument to Frank Zappa, regarded as an anti-Soviet icon, even though the eclectic musician never visited the country. As a teenager visiting Florence, I was floored by my first encounter with Michelangelo’s David, a work of such staggering creative genius it was declared a masterpiece when unveiled in 1504. David’s hands appear disproportionately large because the statue was originally to be placed on a roof to be viewed from below. From that angle, every aspect of this incredible lifelike artwork achieves utter perfection. 

David, Florence. (Photo: Pixabay)
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Frank Zappa Memorial, Vilnius. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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A battle is underway between India and China to create the world’s largest statues. The current title belongs to The Statue of Unity, a 182-metre-tall statue in Gujarat, India, honouring the statesman Vallabhbhai Patel. China’s Spring Temple Buddha is 128 metres tall in the Henan province, built with 1000 tonnes of copper. Myanmar, Japan and Thailand also have giant Buddha statues around the 100-metre-tall mark, and that doesn’t include elaborate thrones and bases.

Lord Vishnu Riding on Garuda, Bali. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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On a visit to Bali, my jaw literally dropped when I saw Lord Vishnu Riding on Garuda. Unveiled in 2018 at a cost of $100 million USD and weighing three tonnes, the elaborate statue has a 64-metre wingspan and sits atop a pedestal 122 metres high. Traditional art is incredible on Bali, and the attention to detail of this gold-crested god riding his giant eagle is simply staggering. 

These are just some of the countless examples of statues that will always leave a strong impression on both locals and visitors. Regardless of their impact through size, detail, concept or controversy, great statues will always fuse geography, art, conversation, and history. 


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