Welcome to Day Five of Julie O’Connor’s Magical, Mystical, Masonic Photo Tour of Washington, DC. You’re staring up at The Apotheosis of Washington, a fresco painted onto the ceiling of the Capitol Rotunda by Italian artist Constantino Brumidi in 1865.
The use of The Apotheosis of Washington in The Lost Symbol is classic Dan Brown, directing the reader’s attention to an unusual episode of American history that is hidden in plain sight:
For most people, The Apotheosis of Washington got stranger and stranger the longer they looked at it. “That’s George Washington on the central panel.” Langdon said, pointing 180 feet upward in the middle of the dome. “As you can see, he’s dressed in white robes, attended by thirteen maidens, and ascending on a cloud above mortal man. This is the moment of his apotheosis . . . his transformation into god.”
Langdon goes on to point out the major figures in the painting: the goddess Minerva giving inspiration to American inventors such as Ben Franklin and Samuel Morse; the god Vulcan helping America build the steam engine; Neptune demonstrating how to lay the transatlantic cable.
Though this scene, in Chapter 21, is memorable, The Apotheosis of Washington plays only a minor role in the novel at this early stage. It holds no secrets and offers no clues to guide Robert Langdon on his quest.
But, for the attentive reader, it does point the way to one of the overarching themes in The Lost Symbol–the power of human thought and the god that lies within every man.
So important is The Apotheosis that Dan Brown returns to it at the end of The Lost Symbol, with a memorable, some might say, cinematic scene, in Chapter 133, where Langdon and Katherine Solomon climb to a circular catwalk and marvel at the fresco while discussing the key to the Ancient Mysteries–the power of the human mind:
Langdon had to admit, not many frescoes in the world fused scientific inventions with mythical gods and human apotheosis…Today, this soaring icon–the father of our country ascending to heaven–hung silently above our lawmakers, leaders, and presidents . . . a bold reminder, a map to the future, a promise of a time when man would evolve to complete spiritual maturity.
And now Katherine:
“Robert,” Katherine whispered, her gaze still fixed on the massive figures of America’s great inventors accompanied by Minerva. “It’s prophetic, really. Today, man’s most advanced inventions are being used to study man’s most ancient ideas. The science of Noetics may be new, but it’s actually the oldest science on earth–the study of human thought.
Noetics is a topic for another post. But there is much more that can be said about The Apotheosis.
Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, adjunct professor of religious art and cultural history at Georgetown University, has written a detailed essay about the fresco for Secrets of The Lost Symbol.
Among her many fascinating insights, she points out that although the painting, mingling gods and real people, might seem confusing today, at the time The Apotheosis was commissioned the depiction of abstract ideas, like moral courage, as a recognizable person was commonplace.
She also draws attention to small details Robert Langdon doesn’t acknowledge, such as that fact that the 13 maidens attending Washington represent the 13 original colonies. And that six of them have their backs turned to represent their secession from the Union during the Civil War.