Monday, November 19, 2012

We Really Need to Talk About The Apotheosis of Washington

Most intelligent Americans realize that our nation’s supposed separation of church and state doesn’t always hold up. After all, religion — Christianity in particular — often seeps into politics in a way that our forefathers either would have hated or been cool with, depending on whom you ask, but also don’t ask because that conversation will likely be endless and involve a lot of emphatic hand gestures. For a moment, however, disregard all the imaginary lines people like to paint between church and state, because there’s one aspect of Washington D.C. that would make both atheists and bible-thumpers respond with “huh?” And this thing is The Apotheosis of Washington.

via the capitol’s official flickr page; see a slideshow of details here.
I toured the Capitol Building when I was a kid, and if this work of art was included, our guide downplayed its whackadoo nature. I only recently had it pointed out to me in terms of how strange it is. Apotheosis, please understand, can have two meanings — either “the perfect example,” as in Webster’s example of “the apotheosis of the picaresque novel,” or a more literal meaning, “deification.” But doesn’t it seem strange to deify the guy who conceded that people should address the American head of state as “Mr. President” instead of anything loftier or monarchical? That’s nonetheless what this 1865 fresco depicts: George Washington riding clouds in heaven, styled like a character from classical mythology and flanked by personifications of victory and liberty. Scattered around the rim of this circular painting are founding fathers and Roman gods, side by side, in tableaus depicting war, science, commerce, mechanics, agriculture and, um, marine. (Yes, makes for a weird parallel construction in the style of running, dancing, leaping, purple and lobster.)

I find this all very strange, not only because the artist, the Italian-born Constantino Brumidi, began painting it the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and therefore during a time when the nation had other concerns. It’s also the subject matter itself, and it makes it no less weird to me to know that Brumidi wasn’t the only artist to give George the god treatment. That actually makes it even stranger in that this didn’t result from one crazy person’s idea but an aesthetic trend that a whole lot of people were willing to run with. However, there’s little I can say about it from my computer in my apartment which is not located in the Capitol rotunda, so here are some selections from other write-ups on The Apotheosis of Washington, whose matter-of-fact descriptions of all this religious kookiness verge on the surreal:
  • Gazing upward to the dome, one sees Washington floating far overhead, a life-sized and heavenly vision.1
  • The peak of a rainbow’s arch passes beneath his feet, and there are thirteen maidens aside the central three figures (Washington, Liberty, and Victory) that represent the original thirteen states.2
  • Surrounding Washington, Victory, and Liberty in a circle are 13 maidens who represent the original 13 colonies that formed the federation of the United States. Some of them are holding a banner which says E Pluribus Unum, but others have their backs turned towards Washington to indicate those states which attempted to break away from the union during the Civil War.3
  • Ceres, Roman goddess of agriculture, is identified by the wheat wreath on her head and a cornucopia. She is seated on a McCormack reaper.4
  • [In the “war” scene,] Brumidi may have expressed his own political feelings by using the features of the Confederate leaders on the evil figures being vanquished by Freedom: Jefferson Davis as Discord, with two lighted torches, and Alexander H. Stephens as Anger, being struck by a thunder bolt and biting his finger.5
  • Holding his trident, Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, looks on as Venus, the Roman goddess of love who was born from the sea, helps lay the transatlantic cable.4
  • Mercury, god of commerce, with his winged cap and sandals and caduceus, hands a bag of gold to Robert Morris, financier of the Revolutionary War, while men move a box on a dolly.5
  • Minerva, goddess of wisdom and the arts of civilization, with helmet and spear, points to an electric generator creating power stored in batteries, next to a printing press, while inventors Benjamin Franklin, Samuel F.B. Morse, and Robert Fulton watch.5
  • Paintings and sculptures of Washington’s celestial rise were soon to be found in living rooms and civic halls across the country.1
Now think about what you must do to achieve veneration as a glowering god of old.

via the capitol’s flickr
  1. The Apotheosis of George Washington — Brumidi’s Fresco & Beyond
  2. DC Walkabout — The Apotheosis of Washington
  3. Presidents Day and the Apotheosis of Washington
  4. The Apotheosis of Washington
  5. Painting the Apotheosis of Washington

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