Sat, 11 Sep 1999

Hermes statue gains neglected fame

Old Batavia has been home to many magnificent statues, sculptures and plaques. Like the fate of many old buildings, many of them have been poorly treated and even destroyed. The Hermes statue in Harmoni was lucky to evade this fate and share the luck of Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The 94-year-old bronze statue is currently receiving excellent care after it was listed as "missing" and then returned. This is the fifth article in a series about old Jakarta to run in Saturday editions of The Jakarta Post.

JAKARTA (JP): Prior to going "missing" on Aug. 20, only a few motorists and passersby ever took the time to take a close look at the two-meter Greek god Hermes statue on the top of a bridge rail at a side of the busy Harmoni crossroads in Central Jakarta.

So many of us thought that this art deco style piece was only about 30 to 40 centimeters high.

Tourist guides and travel agents here failed to introduce Hermes, erected in 1905 during the Dutch colonial era, to visitors to the capital.

Of the relatively few people that have inspected the statue -- which is under the protection, together with the bridge, of the Jakarta administration -- only a handful of them have learned that this near-nude bronze statue has changed colors several times for unknown reasons.

For New Yorkers, the Harmoni Hermes -- which protects its modesty with a leaf covering the pubic area -- has similarities with a decorative plaque of a gilded Mercury at the Rockefeller Center.

A keen art deco enthusiast or a historian might easily see the distinct differences of the two works.


Both objects illustrate an unclothed male adult with "wings" on the ankles, but with slightly different accessories.

But the Harmoni Hermes holds a "stick" in the left hand with the right one pointing toward the heavens. Many have said the original item held by the statue's left hand is missing, either broken or stolen.

According to the books on mythology, Hermes was the Greek god of commerce, eloquence, invention, travel and theft who served as herald and messenger of the other gods. Mercury was the Roman god of commerce, eloquence, travel, cunning and theft who served as a messenger to other gods.

Like many of the city's protected assets, information on Hermes and the bridge is as rare as the statue itself.

The only available data from the city administration stated that Harmoni's statue and bridge was built by the Dutch colonial government.

The bridge was designed to connect the area divided by the Ciliwung River to facilitate traders and passersby of the time. The Hermes statue, standing on a spherical mold on the center of the bridge's fence, was meant to bring luck to traders and secure passersby.

Harmoni was the main thoroughfare for both traders and people heading to downtown Kota, the then business center of Batavia.

According to Candrian Attahiyat, head of the archeology section of the city museum and restoration agency, Hermes recorded no significant historical moments.

"It's then categorized as a protected item by the city administration only due to its rare status, because there is only one Hermes in this country.

The statue is indeed one of the city's accessories," Candrian said.

The statue's history of not being on a site which recorded colonial historical events saved it from the late president Sukarno's agenda to demolish Hermes.

In accordance with the spirit of nationalism to crush any traces of the colonialists, the country's first president during his first years of presidency campaigned for the destruction of a wide range of Dutch-built statues.

The campaign included the destruction of the J.P. Coen statue in Banteng Square and a beautifully designed statue at the former Wilhemina park, currently the site of the Istiqlal Grand Mosque.


A widely circulated story among Jakartans revealed that the Harmoni crossroads were actually the home to twin Hermes, each placed on the Harmoni bridge rails.

Unfortunately, the story was only able to be verified recently.

"Even photos taken in the 1920s did not show any other Hermes at the site," Candrian said.

He said Hermes was original gilded with green bronze.

He said he had no idea why the city museum agency had changed the color to suit their own taste.

"Once Hermes was painted black, with the legs white, which they said was to illustrate his shoes," Candrian said with disapproval.

"Then it was gilded a gold color, just like a trophy."

Cleaning and refurbishment of the statue was not high on the agenda. It was performed at random, when the officials remembered that it was time to polish Hermes up, Candrian said.

"Usually the project took more than one day," he explained.

The recent controversial absence of the statue was to prove a great moment for Hermes. After being neglected for decades, the news attracted public and media attention.

Three days after going "missing", the city public works agency suddenly claimed to have saved the statue from falling into the Ciliwung River. The agency then returned the statue to the city parks agency, which later transferred it to the Jakarta History Museum in West Jakarta for temporary safekeeping.

The Aug. 20 absence was the first time Hermes left his partner: the Harmoni bridge rail.

As of this Saturday, he has been away from his original home for 23 days and still has no idea whether he'll meet his partner again or not, since the city administration has plans to replace him with a replica! (bsr/ind)