By Alex Jenson
Part of the human condition is the search for a deeper meaning. The public buildings and monuments of D.C. make full use of this phenomena. Intentionally or not, walking feels designed to appeal on a spiritual level to the citizens of the country. These edifices are perhaps the most overt attempts to unite a diverse country by creating and appealing to a universal American Pantheon. The best examples of this are the Capitol, and the presidential monuments of Washington and Lincoln.
The first part of the Capitol tour is a short film, designed to frame the perception of all pilgrims before they begin their journey. The most impactful line of the film describes the capitol as the temple of Liberty. The similarity to the Vatican was striking. As the Vatican holds sculptures from Greek and Roman antiquity, The Capitol holds larger than life sculptures of the chosen scions of each of the fifty states. As Michelangelo’s Last Judgement tells a story that defines the Catholic Church, The Rotunda holds paintings telling the story of Early America, from discovery to colonization to the founding of the United States. Most striking of all is the dome of the Rotunda, where the ascended soul of Washington sits at the side of Liberty and Victory, while the base of the rotunda, what was intended to be his tomb holds the weight of the entire dome above it. The Capitol is filled with this potent symbolism. As I walked the corridors, I felt as if I was walking in a holy place, and I consciously resisted the urge to pray.
The Washington Monument dominates the D.C. skyline, instantly recognizable from any angle, rising above the city like an old and weathered sentinel. Unlike many of the monuments and buildings of D.C. the Washington monument draws its inspiration from Egyptian culture. The Washington is an obelisk, one of the largest in existence. In ancient Egypt, obelisks represent the primordial mound upon which the Egyptian god Atum stood when he created the earth and the gods of Egypt. The comparison here is blatant. As Atum created the earth, so did Washington create the United States. As Atum is the father of the gods of Egypt, Washington is the first of the American Gods, without whom none of the others could have existed.
The Lincoln Memorial is modeled on the Parthenon, the most iconic structure of the Greek City-State Athens, the birthplace of Democracy. Within, a towering figure sits in a massive chair, staring across the reflecting pool towards Washington Monument. The parallel here is the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the lost wonders of the world. Lincoln is recreated larger than life, likely to provide a visual cue of his greatness compared to mortal man. He faces Washington, perhaps as a deliberate attempt to imply that Lincoln is the greatest of his heirs; who, like Washington, created unity in the most trying of times.
Before this trip, I never thought about the role of these American Gods in the national discussion, or their outsize role in creating a compelling and unifying narrative of patriotism. However, these monuments throw in stark relief the import and power the creation of these edifices on the devoted. In these divisive times, it is always important to remember that far more unites us than divides us, and to look to our national mythology, to remind us of our shared legends and heroes. But perhaps, that’s just my all too human search for a deeper meeting.