Yes, that is George Washington in a purple toga.
Like any intellectual-minded, white male of upper-middle class breeding in the 18th century, the founding fathers were really into the Greeks and Romans. Much of America’s democratic system of government is born of classical political theory. But, the copycatting doesn’t stop there. Americans recreated ancient obelisks, temples and pantheons in the newly reclaimed swamplands of DC.
The Apotheosis of Washington adorns the interior of the U.S. Capital rotunda. If the dome recalls the Pantheon in Rome, that wouldn’t be an accident. But, instead of enshrining the gods, it’s a temple to democratic ideals. Apotheosis literally means to ascend or become a God. Acting as both political and religious propaganda, Apotheosis scenes were very in vogue with Roman Emperors.
George Washington was a pretty humble fellow. Evidence to this effect can also be found in the Capital rotunda. On the wall below the Apotheosis is another famous American painting, John Trumbull’s General George Washington Resigning His Commission. Here George gives up his powerful military post to return to his farm, in doing so, he assures that the new American republic will not be governed by a military dictatorship.
Clearly, that kind of selfless and power adverse personality begs to immortalized as a roman style Emperor-slash-God. In American history, there are many a politician who might fancy themselves a modern God. George Washington probably wasn’t one of them. It’s more a Trump move.
Still, Constantin Brumidi, the painter in charge of newly minted U.S. Capital, chose to depict Washington in such a regal state. It helps to consider that this was in 1864, at the height of the American Civil War. National heroes were being rounded up in service of Union cause. Washington as a god on high sent a powerful message during a period of major division and war. The 13 ladies surrounding Washington represent the 13 original colonies. Some scholars note that several women have their back turned away from the former President. They just so happen to be the figures symbolizing the states that seceded from the Union. Awk.
But, Apotheosis isn’t all politics. There’s also some pretty excellent mergers of American history and Greek mythology. In scene below, Venus, the god of love, and Poseidon, the god of the sea, help to lay the transatlantic cable.
Here’s Minerva, goddess of wisdom, hanging out with Ben Franklin and an early electric generator.
During my stint as a Capital Hill intern, giving tours was a big chunk of the daily duties. I loved explaining to visitors the weird messages behind the Apotheosis. It’s national treasure and testament to the wacky, passionate vision of the American political system.