The original chamber was designed to seat 21 people in a semi-circular “top” table – but without a podium. This backed onto five majestic windows, thus allowing the other 500 people seated to view the park, Lake Leman and Mont Blanc beyond.
Over the years, the chamber has been altered many times to accommodate the needs of the many bodies which meet there – including the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council and, in recent years, the Conference on Disarmament.
But today’s visitor is still immediately struck by the size, splendour and intensity of the original décor, above all the gold and sepia murals on the ceiling and walls of the square, sombre space.
The murals, a gift of the Government of Spain in 1936, were painted by the Catalan artist José María Sert. They depict human progress through health, technology, freedom and peace – all united by five colossal Dantesque figures (representing the world’s five continents) grasping each other’s hands in apocalyptical triumph at the dome of the ceiling.
José María Sert (“a baroque painter working in the 20th century”) has been referred to as “the last of the great masters”, in the great Spanish artistic tradition of Velásquez, El Greco and Goya. When his work in this Chamber was first seen, it was compared with the frescos of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.
Spain has continued its generous association with the Council Chamber, which is also known as the Francisco de Vitoria Room, in honour of the 16th century Spanish theologian and philosopher who has been described as “the founder of modern international law”.
On either side of the Chamber are two monumental bronze doors, with Latin inscriptions, by the famed French artist Raymond Subes, leading (on the left) into the Salon Francais (see below) and (on the right) into Salle 1, originally a small private room for the use of meeting presidents.