Library of Congress > Tours > Online Tours

Visit Menu

Online Tours

Previous | Next

Great Hall

When its doors opened to the public in 1897, the Library of Congress represented an unparalleled national achievement, the "largest, costliest, and safest" library in the world.

Its elaborately decorated interior, embellished by works of art from nearly fifty American painters and sculptors, linked the United States to classical traditions of learning and simultaneously flexed American cultural and technological muscle.

Photography by Carol M. Highsmith

Great Hall East Side

Commemorative Arch

This Commemorative arch by Olin L. Warner (1844-1896) leading to the Main Reading Room commemorates the erection of the Library of Congress. Its sculpture The Students represents the pursuit of knowledge. On the left a young man seeks knowledge through reading. On the right an older man with flowing beard is shown absorbed in meditation, no longer concerned so much with a source of learning because he observes life and engages in original reflection and thought.

In the frieze above them the words -Library of Congress,- are inscribed in tall gilt letters.

Inscription

A second inscription names those involved in the building of the Library. The text reads:

Erected Under the Acts of Congress of
April 15, 1886; October 2, 1888; and March 2, 1889 by
Brig. Gen. Thos. Lincoln Casey
Chief of Engineers U.S.A.

  • Bernard R. Green Supt. and Engineer
  • John L. Smithmeyer Architect
  • Paul J. Pelz Architect
  • Edward Pearce Casey Architect

Eagles as Symbols of the United States

The numerous representations of eagles throughout the building are symbols of the federal government.

Minerva

Presiding over the Library of Congress from a central position is Minerva, the Roman Goddess of learning and wisdom. In this mosaic by Elihu Vedder (1836-1923), she is portrayed as the Minerva of Peace and appears as the guardian of civilization with her armor partly laid aside.

Her attention is directed to an unfolded scroll that she holds in her left hand on which is written a list of various fields of learning, such as Architecture, Law, Statistics, Sociology, Botany, Biography, Mechanics, Philosophy, Zoology, etc.

A small statue of Nike, a representation of victory or achievement, similar to those erected by ancient the Greeks to commemorate success in battle, stands next to Minerva. The figure is a winged female standing on a globe and holding out a laurel wreath (victory) and palm branch (peace) to the victors.

On Minerva's right is an owl, symbolizing wisdom, perched upon the post of a low parapet.

In the sky the clouds of disaster and discouragement are rolled away, and the sun begins to emerge.

Although Minerva's shield and helmet have been laid upon the ground, the goddess still holds a long, two-headed spear, showing that she never relaxes her vigilance.

Beneath the mosaic is an inscription from Ars Poetica by Horace (65-8 B.C.): "Nil invita Minerva, quae monumentum aere perennius exegit," (Not unwilling, Minerva raises a monument more lasting than bronze).

Authors

The names and quotes in the Great Hall were chosen by Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1825-1908) and Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926), president of Harvard University. The works of these illustrious authors were popular at the time the building was constructed, and they were considered to have made great contributions to literature and the study of history.

Printers' Marks from Spain and France

Printers- marks were a type of self-protection similar to a trademark or copyright today. Sometimes they stood for protected privileges granted by kings or religious leaders. Often they incorporated mottoes and were based on the names of kings or religious leaders. Mottoes were often in Latin and sometimes in Greek or Hebrew. There are fifty-six printers- marks around the ceiling on this level.

Johann Rosenbach

Great Hall North Side

Thomas Jefferson Bust

The plaster bust of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) is a copy of a work by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828).

Celebration of American Contributions to Science

The importance of America-s contributions to science and, in particular, Benjamin Franklin (1705-1790) as the discoverer of electricity, is celebrated throughout the Jefferson Building. When the building was completed in 1897, the United States was eager to celebrate many American inventions made practicable by scientific advances relating to electricity. These include the telegraph, the telephone, electrical motors and lighting devices, and the elevator. Throughout the building the bare light bulbs with visible filaments celebrate this American invention and point to its importance to the building.

Putti - Gardener to Printer

The figures of little boys on the staircase are known as -putti- in Italian Renaissance art and represent the various occupations and pursuits of contemporary American life when the Jefferson Building was completed in 1897.

Great Hall. Detail of putti (gardner, entomologist, student, and printer) on Grand staircase, Philip Martiny. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

An entomologist, with an insect specimen box slung over his shoulder, running to catch a butterfly with his net.

A student, with a book in his hand and a mortarboard on his head.

A printer, with type, a press, and a type case.

Asia and Europe

Asia is represented by a Mongolian figure, dressed in flowing silk robes, the folds of which are delicately rendered in marble. In the background is a dragon-shaped porcelain jar.

Europe is represented with a lyre, book and Ionic column-the three objects symbolizing Music, Literature, and Architecture.

Putti - Musician to Astronomer

The figures of little boys on the staircase are known as -putti- in Italian Renaissance art and represent the various occupations and pursuits of contemporary American life when the Jefferson Building was completed in 1897.

Great Hall. Detail of putti (musician, physician, electrician, and astronomer) on Grand staircase, Philip Martiny. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

A musician, with a lyre by his side, studying the pages of a musical composition.

A physician grinding drugs in a mortar, with a distilling vessel beside him and the serpent sacred to medicine.

An electrician, with a burst of electric rays shining on his brow and a telephone receiver at his ear.

An astronomer, with a telescope and a terrestrial globe, encircled by the signs of the zodiac that he is measuring by the aid of a pair of compasses.

Fine Arts

The putti represent the arts of painting, architecture, and sculpture. Painting holds a palette, Architecture, with a Greek temple behind him, grasps a compass and scrolled plan, and Sculpture models a statue.

Paintings of Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, and Philosophy

The names and quotes in the Great Hall were chosen by Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1825-1908) and Charles Elliot (1834-1926), president of Harvard University.

Wisdom
KNOWLEDGE COMES, BUT WISDOM LINGERS
Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), Locksley Hall (1842)

Understanding
WISDOM IS THE PRINCIPAL THING; THEREFORE GET WISDOM; AND WITH ALL THY GETTING, GET UNDERSTANDING
Proverbs 4:7

Knowledge
IGNORANCE IS THE CURSE OF GOD, KNOWLEDGE THE WING WHEREWITH WE FLY TO HEAVEN
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Henry VI, Part II, act 4, sc. 7 (ca. 1598)

Philosohpy
HOW CHARMING IS DIVINE PHILOSOPHY!
John Milton (1608-1674), Mask of Comus (1634)

Authors

The names and quotes in the Great Hall were chosen by Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1825-1908) and Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926), president of Harvard University. The works of these illustrious authors were popular at the time the building was constructed, and they were considered to have made great contributions to literature and the study of history.

George Bancroft
(1800-1891), American Historian and Statesman

Edward Gibbon
(1737-1794), British Historian and Statesman

Lord Alfred Tennyson
(1809-1892), British Poet

Printers' Marks from United States and Britain

Printers' marks were a type of self-protection akin to a trademark or copyright today. Sometimes they protected privileges granted by kings or religious leaders. Often they incorporated mottoes based on the names of kings or religious leaders. Mottoes were often in Latin and sometimes in Greek or Hebrew. There are fifty-six printers' marks around the ceiling on this level.

Great Hall South Side

George Washington Bust

The bronze bust of George Washington (1732-1799) is a copy of a work by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828).

Great Hall. Bust of George Washington. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

Celebration of American Contributions to Science

The importance of America's contributions to science and, in particular, Benjamin Franklin (1705-1790) as the discoverer of electricity, is celebrated throughout the Jefferson Building. When the building was completed in 1897, the United States was eager to celebrate many American inventions made practicable by scientific advances relating to electricity. These include the telegraph, the telephone, electrical motors and lighting devices, and the elevator. Throughout the building the bare light bulbs with visible filaments celebrate this American invention and point to its importance to the building.

Putti - Mechanic to Farmer

The figures of little boys on the staircase are known as "putti" in Italian Renaissance art and represent the various occupations and pursuits of contemporary American life when the Jefferson Building was completed in 1897.

Great Hall. Detail of putti (mechanic, hunter, Bacchanalian, and farmer) on Grand staircase, Philip Martiny. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

A Mechanic, with a cogwheel, a pair of pincers, and a crown of laurel, signifies the triumphs of invention.

A Hunter, with his gun, holds a rabbit by the ears.

An infant Bacchanalian, with Bacchus's grape vines and panther, joyously holds a champagne glass in one hand.

A Farmer holds a sickle and a sheaf of wheat.

North America and Africa

America is represented as an American Indian, with a tall headdress of feathers, a bow and arrow, and a wampum necklace. With one hand he shades his eyes while he gazes intently into the distance and the future.

Africa is represented with a war club and a necklace of the claws of a wild beast.

Great Hall. Detail of cherubs representing America and Africa with putti (fisherman and farmer) on Grand staircase by Philip Martiny. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

Putti - Fisherman to Cook

The figures of little boys on the staircase are known as “putti” in Italian Renaissance art and represent the various occupations and pursuits of contemporary American life when the Jefferson Building was completed in 1897.

Great Hall. Detail of putti (fisherman, Little Mars, chemist, and cook) on Grand staircase, Philip Martiny. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

A fisherman, with rod and reel, taking a fish from a hook.

A chemist, with a blowpipe.

A cook, with a pot hot from the fire.

Performing Arts

The putti represent the literary genres of Comedy, Poetry, and Tragedy. Comedy has a comic mask and the ivy-wreathed wand of Bacchus, to whom the first comedies were dedicated. Poetry has a scroll, and Tragedy holds a tragic mask.

The Seasons

The circular panels above the doorways by Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951) represent Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. The names and quotes in the Great Hall were chosen by Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1825-1908) and Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926), president of Harvard University.

Autumn
"MAN IS ONE WORLD AND HATH ANOTHER TO ATTEND HIM"
George Herbert (1593-1633), The Temple (1633)

Summer
"THEY ARE NEVER ALONE THAT ARE ACCOMPANIED WITH NOBLE THOUGHTS"
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), Arcadia (1590)

Spring
"IT IS THE MIND THAT MAKES THE MAN, AND OUR VIGOR IS IN OUR IMMORTAL SOUL"
Ovid (43BC-AD17), Metamorphoses (AD8)

Winter
"TONGUES IN TREES, BOOKS IN THE RUNNING BROOKS, SERMON IN STONES, AND GOOD IN EVERYTHING"
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), As You Like It, act 2, sc. 1 (ca. 1600)

Authors

The names and quotes in the Great Hall were chosen by Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1825-1908) and Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926), president of Harvard University. The works of these illustrious authors were popular at the time the building was constructed, and they were considered to have made great contributions to literature and the study of history.

Henry Wordsworth Longfellow
(1807-1882), American Poet

Alfred, Lord Tennyson
(1809-1892), British Poet

Edward Gibbon
(1737-1794), British Historian and Statesman

Ceiling and Floor

Ceiling

During the renovation of the Jefferson Building in the 1980s, restorers discovered that the metallic ornamentation of the ceiling, once thought to be silver leaf, is actually aluminum leaf. When the building was being constructed during the 1890s, aluminum was more precious than silver. The scale-pattern design of the six large skylights mirrors the pattern of the marble flooring beneath.

Winged Figures of Genius

At the corners of the ceiling two winged figures of genius flank an emblem showing the traditional symbols of learning, a torch and a book. The figures were modeled by sculptor Philip Martiny (1858-1927). Stars appear in the painted background by the artist Frederic C. Martin (1866-?).

Floor

The marble floor of the Great Hall contains a number of modeled and incised brass inlays. The center represents the Sun, on which are noted the four cardinal points of the compass, indicating the main axes of the building. A decorative scale pattern encloses the Sun with alternate sections of red and yellow Italian marble, the former from Verona and the latter from Sienna.

Twelve squares at the perimeter of the floor of the Great Hall represent the signs of the zodiac. The other squares form two patterns of rosettes. They are embedded in blocks of dark red, richly mottled French marble, with borders of pure white Italian marble.

Proceeding clockwise from bottom left, the zodiac signs are Leo, Cancer, Gemini, Taurus, Aries, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Libra, and Virgo.

Great Hall. View from above of the zodiac in the marble floor. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.