Previously, we brought you “Where God is Carved in Stone on the National Mall.” Today, we’re looking at weird pagan influences on the National Mall in Washington D.C..
While the U.S. certainly has been greatly influenced by the Christian faith, it has also been influenced by certain strains of Enlightenment thought that are decidedly un-Christian. Remember that while the U.S. was in its infancy in the late 18th century, over in Europe during the French Revolution crowds took the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the replaced the altar with an altar to Liberty. This type of thinking was in the air.
A revival of ancient Greek mythology mixed with a desire to replace Christianity in the public sphere seems to have expressed itself in at least these three places in Washington D.C. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy these things today, but their origins are interesting nonetheless:
1) The embarrasing statue of George Washington as Zeus everyone tried to forget about
About two decades before construction began on the current Washington Monument, the U.S. Congress commissioned the sculptor Horatio Greenough to make a statue of George Washington for display in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. Greenough ended up making a statue of Washington modeled after the ancient Statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Titled – and I’m not making this up – “Enthroned Washington,” the sculpture was unveiled in the U.S. Capitol in 1832 and generated controversy immediately. In addition to the fact that Washington was being made out to be a Greek god, people found it either offensive or simply comical that Washington was bare-chested.
Think people were over-reacting? Imagine if the country today decided to display a statue of Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan bare-chested on the national mall. Yeah, it would be really weird and people would make fun of it.
That same year, a group of concerned citizens formed the Washington National Monument Society, which led the effort to build the current Washington Monument.
Not quite sure what to do with the thing they had just paid an artist to make, Congress relocated the statue to the east lawn of the Capitol building in 1843. In 1908, it was moved indoors to the Smithsonian Castle. It stayed there until 1964 when it was moved to what is now known as the National Museum of American History, where it remains today. You can go see it on the second floor:
Here’s a drawing of the ancient statue of Zeus for comparison:
2) The painting of George Washington becoming a god that adorns our Capitol for some reason
So the statue of George Washington as Zeus ended up being relegated to a museum. But the George-Washington-needs-to-be-remembered-as-a-god crowd didn’t give up.
Take a tour of the Capitol, and just look up in the dome: you’ll see The Apotheosis of Washington – literally, the deification (or god-making) of Washington.
Painted by Vatican artist Constantino Brumidi during the Civil War, the fresco depicts Washington sitting on clouds surrounded by various figures from classical mythology.
Again, try to imagine the country having something like this produced of a recent president. ::shudder::
Here’s a look at the full dome, you can click on it to enlarge it (does anyone else see Captain America at the bottom??):
3) The “Temple” to Lincoln
The Lincoln Memorial is a beautiful anchor to the west end of the National Mall and has been the site of famous events like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Step inside, and you see these words engraved above Lincoln’s head:
IN THIS TEMPLE
AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE
FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION
THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
IS ENSHRINED FOREVER
That’s right. It calls itself a “temple.”
It’s not a coincidence, then, that the memorial is modeled after the ancient Temple of Zeus, which looked like this:
This explains why Lincoln is so large and in the sitting position: he is modeled after the Statue of Zeus that occupied the Temple of Zeus (just like the statue of Washington mentioned earlier).
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