Most everyone at UVA has walked by the Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda, but few have examined the statue’s small details. W. Scott Harrop, an adjunct lecturer in UVA’s department of Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and cultures, says he was astonished when a visiting professor pointed out a curious feature of the statue. The names of various deities—God, Jehovah, Brahma, Atma, Ra, Allah, Zeus—are carved into a tablet held by one of the statue’s symbolic spirits, who represents religious freedom.
Harrop went digging through the Special Collections Library to research sculptor Moses Ezekiel, who completed the statue in 1910. Harrop found a letter Ezekiel wrote to his father explaining that he carved the deity names to show that “under our government, they mean, and are all God—and have no other meaning and have each an equal right and protection of our just laws as Americans.”
As Harrop wrote in UVA’s Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures newsletter, the subject of religious freedom had especially poignant meaning to Ezekiel, who was born in 1844 in Richmond to a family of Sephardic Jews and faced anti-Semitism through much of his life.
Ezekiel was the first Jewish man to enroll in the Virginia Military Institute, where he became close friends with roommate Thomas G. Jefferson, a great-nephew of UVA’s founder. They continued their friendship on the battlefield, where Jefferson died in Ezekiel’s arms as the future sculptor read aloud from the Gospel of John.