Secrets of the Capitol Rotunda

The Speaker’s Lobby: Secrets of the Capitol Rotunda

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

08 January 2009

They meander through, up from the Old Supreme Court Chamber and toward Statuary Hall. And I’m not even sure they get it.

The swarms of tourists pulse through the Capitol Rotunda by the hour. They glance at the painting that depicts the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Breeze by the statue of Abraham Lincoln. Snap a few photos. All the while dividing their attention between their guide and wailing babies strapped in strollers. The tourists then shuffle out the door.

Lots of seeing. Little grasping.

Like a tape running on a loop, this scene plays out day after day in the Capitol Rotunda. And it’s twisted. Because the Rotunda is designed to be America’s symbol of enlightenment. But for many Washington tourists, it’s reduced to a box on a punch list. The Air and Space Museum. Arlington National Cemetery. Mount Vernon.

This could be Paris. Eiffel Tower. Check. Arc de Triomphe. Check. The Louvre. Check.

Been there. Done that.

The problem with visiting the Capitol is that it’s a dual-use facility. It’s an office complex. And a museum. The building is so rich with artwork, statues and iconography that even many of those who work there daily can’t decode many of the symbols that surround them.

Those who cruise through the Rotunda inspect the paintings and statues at eye level. But the room’s true majesty looms high above. Perhaps in more ways than one. The Rotunda ceiling yawns 180 feet above the floor. A space large enough in which to fit the Statue of Liberty inside without the base.

If you visit Rome, the most impressive pieces of artwork at the Vatican are Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. “The Creation of Adam” crowns the ceiling. God is shown as a bearded man wrapped in a cloak, his right arm reaching toward Adam. God extends his index finger toward Adam’s outstretched finger, awaiting the spark of life.

Just as the best art at the Vatican hangs above the Sistine Chapel, the same is true at the Capitol. Gaze upward toward the oculus in the Rotunda, and you won’t see God and Adam. But someone being sanctified as a god.

They don’t call him the father of our country for nothing.

Plastered against the arched ceiling above the Rotunda floor is a gigantic canvas called “The Apotheosis.” It shows George Washington, accompanied by thirteen maidens, rising into the heavens.

Some tour guides and Congressional staff try to downplay the meaning of the word “apotheosis.” But in its official literature about the fresco, even the Architect of the Capitol’s office says that apotheosis “means literally the raising of a person to the rank of a god.”

There’s always chatter about the U.S. being a Christian nation and holding Judeo-Christian values. But in the most-hallowed temple of American democracy, at the top of one of the most recognized pinnacles on the planet, there’s a fresco of the first American president, ascending into the heavens as a god. Alongside 13 women.

And it takes the health care bill to stir people into a tizzy?

Italian master Constantino Brumidi created the fresco. Not only did Brumidi depict Washington’s transmogrification into a god. But he painted Washington in an ecclesiastical state. The president’s left hand grips the handle of a sword. His right arm is extended. Washington’s palm is obscured, his outer digits buckled inward. But his index finger and thumb remain open, in a divine pose, gesturing toward a non-descript but hulking book. Washington’s finger position is similar to the symbol of the cross Catholic priests make with their hands when blessing someone during communion.

The scene of George Washington is reminiscent of frescoes painted in Catholic churches all over the world. On those frescoes, Jesus Christ stares down from above, his hand gesturing toward the Bible. Renaissance art sometimes shows Jesus holding up two fingers. This is done to represent Christ’s dual natures: human and the Son of God. And perhaps Brumidi contorted Washington’s hand in the way he did to symbolize George Washington’s two natures. Human. And a god.

But tourist gaggles wandering through the Rotunda rarely comment on Washington gazing down from the canopy. Or the nature of the word “apotheosis.” Or much about the other gods represented on Brumidi’s apotheosis.

As a part of the Apotheosis, Brumidi painted six scenes revealing great achievements in early American history. There’s Armed Freedom waging war. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, teaching inventers Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse. Neptune, god of the sea, and Venus, goddess of love, laying the transatlantic cable. Mercury, the god of trade and profit, provides Robert Morris a bag of cash to finance the American Revolution. Vulcan, the god of fire, forges a cannon and steam engine. And Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, sits atop the McCormick grain reaper.

Again, scenes in the Capitol Rotunda. Not showing divine intervention from God. But the divine intervention of Roman gods, shepherding the country through its infancy. Right down to fostering specific developments in communications, transportation and agriculture technology. And footing the bill for the revolution. 

Does anyone else find this strange?

When the Rotunda crowds subside late in the day, I often head down to there to sit. I sometimes call the Rotunda my “office.” I think and ponder. Reflect. I write emails on my BlackBerry and return voice messages on my cell phone. I’ll even meet with sources there over a cup of coffee.

This “office” has no desk. No television screen. And no computer.

But it doesn’t matter.

The Rotunda’s grandeur is intoxicating. Massive paintings adorn the walls. Statues of the country’s greatest leaders. I imagine those who have laid in state or repose in the center of the Rotunda. JFK. President Reagan. Rosa Parks.

The Rotunda tells the story of America. And it offers perspective as I walk around the Capitol all day, feebly trying to weave together a patch of the country’s contemporary narrative.

As a reporter who covers Congress, it’s hard to get all of the story. Whether it’s health care, climate legislation or the big stimulus bill. I get some of it. But I always know there’s more. Even if it’s right in front of me. And when revealed, some of those details can be shocking.

Similar to The Apotheosis in the Rotunda.

It’s easy enough for visitors to understand the statues or a painting. But the Rotunda’s most-mysterious artifact is in plain view. Albeit 180 feet up. Tourists might spot the Apotheosis of George Washington. But do they really digest what it means?

There’s lots of hubbub in Washington this week about televising closed meetings on the health care reform bill. And even if Democratic leaders flung open the doors to those negotiations and televised them live, a lot of people wouldn’t grasp what was going on. Even though it was right there.

Kind of like The Apotheosis in the Rotunda. A peculiar depiction of the most-iconic American. Right there, out in the open. In the center of the most-revered building in America. And most of the people who walk underneath it each day don’t quite grasp what it represents.

-         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

-         The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, journalist and aides often confer there during votes.