Back in 2003, novelist Dan Brown took the publishing world by storm with his highly controversial book, The Da Vinci Code. Just recently, he released his long-awaited follow-up, The Lost Symbol, which centers around the mysteries surrounding the many Masonic symbols found around our nation’s capital and on our national currency.
At the center of this new thriller is the fresco known as “The Apotheosis of George Washington,” which adorns the ceiling of the Capital Dome. Painted in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880), this Raphael-esque fresco covers an area of 4,664 square feet and took eleven months to paint.
In the center of the fresco, Brumidi depicts George Washington rising to the heavens with classical female figures representing Liberty and Victory. Washington is depicted as a godlike figure here, hence the word “apotheosis” in the title, which literally means “the raising of a person to the rank of a god.”
Six other groups of figures are included in the painting symbolizing American ingenuity in war, science, marine, mechanics, agriculture, and commerce.
Ed Karshner, assistant professor of English studies and communications skills at RMU, pointed out that the commerce grouping actually depicts Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, handing a bag of money to our very own Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. “Mercury was the patron god of alchemy, which sought to transform lead (the body/material) into gold (the soul/spirtiual),” he says. “Mercury represented the swift intellect and was associated with Hermes, the messenger of the gods. So, the intellect is handing Robert Morris a spiritual reward of transformation (i.e., what was lead is now gold), which is a pretty cool metaphor for a university.”
Each semester, Karshner has students in his Mythology class look for the hidden symbols around campus. “I also like to look at how groups use symbols, icons, and indexes subconsciously,” he says. “It's a kind of symbol scavenger hunt and a mind puzzle, but it's also fun and can be illuminating.”
Karshner points out that at RMU we have a ziggurat: a stepped hill with a temple (Rogal Chapel) on top. “You can look at ancient Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica to see examples of these pyramids,” he says.
We also have a dome and spiral in the Nicholson Center, which Karshner says symbolizes the migration or emergence into the mind or the ascending to heaven. “All of these symbols fit into RMU as a university, since they all reference a migration upward to a higher consciousness and a transformation of self.”
--Valentine J. Brkich