Main Reading Room
Eight giant marble columns each support 10-foot-high allegorical female figures in plaster representing characteristic features of civilized life and thought: Religion, Commerce, History, Art, Philosophy, Poetry, Law and Science.
The 16 bronze statues set upon the balustrades of the galleries pay homage to men whose lives symbolized the thought and activity represented by the plaster statues.
Photography by Carol M. Highsmith
On the ceiling of the lantern, which rises above the highest part of the dome, is a painting of a beautiful female figure representing Human Understanding, in the act of lifting the veil of ignorance and looking forward to intellectual progress. She is attended by two cherubs: one is holding the book of wisdom and knowledge and the other seems, by his gesture, to be encouraging viewers beneath to persist in their struggle toward perfection.
Edwin Blashfield painted Human Understanding and the twelve figures that decorate the dome. A mural of twelve seated figures, male and female, are arranged against a wall of mosaic patterning. They represent countries, or epochs, which in 1897, when the building was constructed, were thought to have contributed the most to the evolution of western civilization.
- Egypt represents Written Records.
- Judea represents Religion.
- Greece represents Philosophy.
- Rome represents Administration.
- Islam represents Physics.
- The Middle Ages represent Modern Languages.
- Italy represents the Fine Arts.
- Germany represents the Art of Printing.
- Spain represents Discovery.
- England represents Literature.
- France represents Emancipation.
- America represents Science.
Michelangelo, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (March 6, 1475–February 18, 1564), Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, and poet who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art.
Ludwig van Beethoven (baptized December 17, 1770–March 26, 1827), German composer, the predominant musical figure in the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras.
Christopher Columbus, Italian Cristoforo Colombo, Spanish Crist-bal Col-n (between Aug. 26 and Oct. 31?, 1451–died May 20, 1506), master navigator and admiral whose four transatlantic voyages opened the way for European exploration, exploitation, and colonization of the Americas.
Robert Fulton, (Nov. 14, 1765–Feb. 24, 1815) American inventor, engineer, and artist who brought steamboating from the experimental stage to commercial success. He also designed a system of inland waterways, a submarine, and a steam warship.
Herodotus (484BCE–430â–420), Greek author of the first great narrative history produced in the ancient world, the History of the Greco-Persian Wars.
Edward Gibbon (May 8 [April 27, old style], 1737–Jan. 16, 1794), English rationalist historian and scholar best known as the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88), a continuous narrative from the 2nd century AD to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Solon (c. 630BCE–c. 560), Athenian statesman, known as one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece. He ended exclusive aristocratic control of the government, substituted a system of control by the wealthy, and introduced a new and more humane law code. He was also a noted poet.
James Kent (July 31, 1763–Dec. 12, 1847), jurist whose decisions and written commentaries shaped the inchoate common law in the formative years of the United States and also influenced jurisprudence in England and other common-law countries.
Plato, (428/427 BCE–348/347), ancient Greek philosopher, student of Socrates (c. 470-399 BCE), teacher of Aristotle (384-322 BCE), and founder of the Academy, best known as the author of philosophical works of unparalleled influence.
Francis Bacon (January 22, 1561–April 9, 1626), lord chancellor of England (1618-21), a lawyer, statesman, and philosopher.
Homer (flourished 9th or 8th century BCE?) presumed author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
William Shakespeare, also spelled Shakspere, byname Bard of Avon or Swan of Avon (baptized April 26, 1564–died April 23, 1616), English poet, dramatist, and actor.
Moses, Hebrew Moshe (flourished 14th–13th century BCE), Hebrew prophet, teacher, and leader.
Saint Paul, the Apostle, original name Saul of Tarsus (born 4 BCE?, Tarsus in Cilicia [now in Turkey]–died c. ad 62-64, Rome [Italy]), one of the leaders of the first generation of Christians.
Sir Isaac Newton, (born December 25, 1642 [January 4, 1643, New Style], Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England–died March 20 [March 31], 1727, London), English physicist and mathematician.
Joseph Henry, (born Dec. 17, 1797, Albany, N.Y., U.S.–died May 13, 1878, Washington, D.C.), one of the first great American scientists after Benjamin Franklin. He was the first Smithsonian Secretary, served from 1846 to 1878.
Art is unlike the other figures in being represented as nearly nude. She is crowned with laurel and holds a model of the Greek Parthenon. Beside her is a low tree, in the branches of which are hung a sculptor's mallet and painter's palette and brush.
Commerce, crowned with a wreath of peaceful olive leaves, holds in her right hand a model of a Yankee schooner and in her left a miniature locomotive.
History has a book in her hand and, with obvious symbolism, holds up a mirror so that it will reflect things behind her.
Law has a scroll in her hand and a fold of her robe is drawn over her head to signify the solemnity of her mission. Beside her sits the stone tablet of the law.
Philosophy is a grave figure with downcast eyes, carrying a book in her hand.
Poetry is dressed in a garment that falls in severe lines, which suggest the epic and the more serious forms of drama, rather than the lighter aspects of the muse.
Religion holds a flower in her hand, symbolizing the lesson of God revealed in nature.
Science holds in her left hand a globe of the earth, surmounted by a triangle. In her right hand is a mirror, not, like History's, but held forward so that all may perceive the image of truth.
Above each symbolic statue is a pendentive, formed by the curved triangular surfaces between the two arches that support the dome. Each pendentive is decorated with two winged figures, sculpted by Philip Martiny (1858-1927).
The figures, modeled as if half flying and half supported on the curve of the arches, hold between them a large tablet, carrying an inscription in gilt letters.
"ONE GOD, ONE LAW, ONE ELEMENT, AND ONE FAR-OFF DIVINE EVENT, TO WHICH THE WHOLE CREATION MOVES."
-Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)
"HITHER, AS TO THEIR FOUNTAIN, OTHER STARS REPAIRING, IN THEIR GOLDEN URNS DRAW LIGHTS."-John Milton (1608-1674), Paradise Lost, vii, 364
"THE HEAVENS DECLARE THE GLORY OF GOD; AND THE FIRMAMENT SHEWETH HIS HANDIWORK."
The clock, created by John Flanagan (1865-1952), is constructed of a variety of brilliantly colored precious marbles against a mosaic background encircled by the signs of the zodiac in bronze. Above the clock a life-size figure of Father Time, executed in bronze, strides forward with scythe in hand.
To the left and right are the figures of maidens with children representing the seasons. The dial of the clock is approximately four feet in diameter and in the center is a gilt glory, or sunburst. The hands of the clock, which are also gilded, are jeweled with semiprecious stones.
* Only able to view via the online tour.