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United States Capitol rotunda

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United States Capitol rotunda

Rotunda viewed from behind the statue of George Washington

The United States Capitol rotunda is the central rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.. Located below the Capitol dome, it is the tallest part of the Capitol and has been described as its "symbolic and physical heart."

The rotunda is surrounded by corridors connecting the House of Representatives and Senate sides of the Capitol. To the south of the rotunda is the semi-circular National Statuary Hall, which until 1857 was the House of Representatives chamber. To the northeast of the rotunda is the Old Senate Chamber, used by the Senate until 1859 and by the Supreme Court of the United States until 1935.

The rotunda is 96 feet (29 m) in diameter and rises 180 feet 3 inches (54.94 m) to the canopy, and is visited by thousands of people each day. It is surmounted by the American Statue of Freedom. And it is also used for ceremonial events authorized by concurrent resolution, including the lying in state of honored people.

Design and construction

Capitol rotunda
Capitol rotunda

The doctor and architect William Thornton was the winner of the contest to design the Capitol in 1793. Thornton had first conceived the idea of a central rotunda. However, due to lack of funds or resources, oft-interrupted construction, and the British attack on Washington during the War of 1812, work on the rotunda did not begin until 1818. The rotunda was completed in 1824 under Architect of the Capitol Charles Bulfinch, as part of a series of new buildings and projects in preparation for the final visit of Marquis de Lafayette in 1824. The rotunda was designed in the neoclassical style and was intended to evoke the design of the Pantheon.

The sandstone rotunda walls rise 48 feet (15 m) above the floor; everything above this—the Capitol dome–was designed in 1854 by Thomas U. Walter, the fourth Architect of the Capitol. Walter had also designed the Capitol's north and south extensions. Work on the dome began in 1856, and in 1859, Walter redesigned the rotunda to consist of an inner and outer dome, with a canopy suspended between them that would be visible through an oculus at the top of the inner dome. In 1862, Walter asked painter Constantino Brumidi to design "a picture 65 feet (20 m) in diameter, painted in fresco, on the concave canopy over the eye of the New Dome of the U.S. Capitol." At this time, Brumidi may have added a watercolor canopy design over Walter's tentative 1859 sketch. The dome was being finished in the middle of the American Civil War and was constructed from fireproof cast iron. During the Civil War, the rotunda was used as a military hospital for Union soldiers. The dome was finally completed in 1866.


In January 2013, the Architect of the Capitol announced a four-year, $10 million project to repair and conserve the Captiol Dome's exterior and the Capitol rotunda. The proposal would require the stripping of lead paint from the interior of the dome, repair to the ironwork, repainting of the interior of the dome, rehabilitation of the interstitial space between the dome and rotunda, and installation of new lighting in the interstitial space and the rotunda. The dome and rotunda, which were last conserved in 1960, are showing significant signs of rust and disrepair. There is a danger that decorative ironwork could fall from the rotunda to the space below, and that weather-related problems could damage the artwork in the rotunda. Without immediate repair, safety netting will be installed (blocking the rotunda's artwork from view).[1]

Apotheosis of Washington

The Apotheosis of Washington, as seen looking up from the rotunda

exalted amongst the heavens. It is suspended 180 feet (55 m) above the rotunda floor and covers an area of 4,664 square feet (433.3 m2).

Frieze of American History

The "Frieze of American History" is painted to appear as a carved stone bas-relief frieze but is actually a trompe-l'œil fresco cycle depicting 19 scenes from American history. The "frieze" occupies a band immediately below the 36 windows. Brumidi designed the frieze and prepared a sketch in 1859 but did not begin painting until 1878. Brumidi painted seven and a half scenes. While working on "William Penn and the Indians," Brumidi fell off the scaffolding and held on to a rail for 15 minutes until he was rescued. He died a few months later in 1880. After Brumidi's death, Filippo Costaggini was commissioned to complete the eight and a half remaining scenes in Brumidi's sketches. He finished in 1889 and left a 31-foot (9 m) gap due to an error in Brumidi's original design. In 1951, Allyn Cox completed the frieze.

Except for the last three panels named by Allyn Cox, the scenes have no particular titles and many variant titles have been given. The names given here are the names used by the Architect of the Capitol, which uses the names that Brumidi used most frequently in his letters and that were used in Edward Clark and by newspaper articles. The 19 panels are:

Scene Description
America and History

This is the first panel and the only allegorical one, portraying a personification of America, wearing a liberty cap, with spear and shield in the center, surrounded by other allegorical figures. To the right is an Native American maiden with a bow and arrows, representing the wild North American continent. At America's feet is a female personification of History, with a stone tablet to record events. To the left of History is an eagle, perched on a fasces, the ancient Roman bundle of birch rods symbolizing authority. To the left of America is another eagle, carrying the olive branch of peace. To the center-left in the background is a man in same pose as the prospector at the end of "Discovery of Gold in California"; this is because Brumidi planned to have the scene connect with his planned last one.

Landing of Columbus

Christopher Columbus is depicted arriving in the Americas in the first of four scenes of the Spanish conquest. Columbus disembarks off a plank from the Santa María. His crew, armed with weapons, stays aboard; one crew member has a spyglass. Native Americans are portrayed greeting Columbus. Indian women and children are shown, along with native warriors to the right. The Columbus figure may have been based on Luigi Persico statue of Columbus, which was at the time of the painting the on the east central steps of the Capitol.

Cortez and Montezuma at Mexican Temple

This panel shows the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés entering an Aztec temple, being welcomed by Moctezuma II. At the beginning of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, Moctezuma and the Aztecs honored Cortés as a god, believing that he was the returning god Quetzalcoatl. The Aztec calendar stone and cult images are based on sketches drawn by Brumidi in Mexico City.

Pizarro Going to Peru

Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro is depicted leading his horse through the jungle in search of El Dorado, the mythical land of gold, in this representation of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire.

Burial of DeSoto

This panel depict the burial of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in the Mississippi River after his death from a fever. De Soto led the largest European expedition of both 15th and 16th centuries through the Southeast and Midwest searching for gold, silver, and other valuables.

Captain Smith and Pocahontas

Pocahontas is portrayed saving Captain John Smith, one of the founders of Jamestown, Virginia, from being clubbed to death.

Landing of the Pilgrims

Pilgrims led by William Brewster give thanks to God for their safe voyage aboard the Mayflower in this scene depicting Plymouth Colony.

William Penn and the Indians

Quaker leader and Province of Pennsylvania founder William Penn is depicted with Lenape (Delaware) Native Americans under the elm tree at Shackamaxon. This is the last panel on which Brumidi worked.

Colonization of New England

This panel shows New England settlers busily logging, sawing, and using lumber to construct a building. This is the first scene painted entirely by Filippo Costaggini.

Oglethorpe and the Indians

Muskogee present Oglethorpe with a buffalo skin with an eagle in the center, a symbol of friendship and trust.

Battle of Lexington

This panel depicts the "shot heard 'round the world" at the Battle of Lexington, the first major battle of the American Revolutionary War. Major John Pitcairn is shown on horseback at center, with British Army or Royal Marines troops to the right and Lexington militiamen at left.

Declaration of Independence

Idealized depiction of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, authors of the Declaration of Independence, reading the declaration to celebrating colonists.

Surrender of Cornwallis

Depiction of Charles O'Hara, who represented Lord Cornwallis after the final British defeat at the Battle of Yorktown. In reality, it is thought that Washington declined O'Hara's sword because according to the custom of the time it would only be proper for Washington to receive the sword from Cornwallis himself; Major General Benjamin Lincoln instead accepted the sword.

Death of Tecumseh

This panel depicts the death of Shawnee chief and Indian Confederation leader Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in Upper Canada during the War of 1812 (partially an extension of Tecumseh's War).

American Army Entering the City of Mexico.

U.S. Army troops led by Winfield Scott enter Mexico City after the fall of Mexico City, which ended the Mexican-American War with a decisive American victory. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which provided for the massive Mexican Cession of territory in what is now the Western United States.

Discovery of Gold in California

Prospectors dig and pan for gold with picks, shovels, and other tools in this depiction of the California Gold Rush. In the center, three men (one possibly representing John Sutter) examine a prospector's pan. This was the last scene designed by Brumidi and painted by Costaggini.

Peace at the End of the Civil War

This scene, the first of Allyn Cox's three panels, depicts a Confederate soldier and a Union soldier shaking hands at the end of the American Civil War, symbolizing reconciliation and reunification. The cotton plant and the Northern pine tree symbolize the South and the North.

Naval Gun Crew in the Spanish-American War

A group of United States Navy sailors in a gun crew are depicted in a naval battle during the Spanish–American War. and the United States won a victory over Spain in the war. The 1898 Treaty of Paris provided for Cuba's independence from Spain and the American acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

The Birth of Aviation.

This scene depicts the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. The Wright Flyer is shown just off the ground, with Orville Wright in the plane and Wilbur Wright running alongside to steady the wing. To the left are Leonardo da Vinci, Samuel Pierpont Langley, and Octave Chanute, other aviation pioneers, holding models of other Early flying machines. An eagle holds an olive branch in the bottom right.

Historical paintings

Eight John Vanderlyn, Discovery of the Mississippi by William Henry Powell, Baptism of Pocahontas by John Gadsby Chapman, and Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert Walter Weir.

Painting Artist Dates Description Notes
John Trumbull Commissioned 1817, purchased 1819, placed 1826[2] John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, and the principal author, Thomas Jefferson — members of the Committee of Five, who drafted the Declaration of Independence — present the declaration to the Second Continental Congress and President John Hancock on June 28,[2] 1776 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.[2] The first painting Trumbull completed for the rotunda and probably the most widely recognized, the iconic Declaration of Independence is somewhat historically inaccurate and anachronistic. Of the 56 signers, 42 are represented. The rest are absent, possibly because they were not present at the adoption of the declaration or had died by the time of Trumbull's painting. Four are included who did not sign, but whom Trumbull found worthy of inclusion: Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Willing, and John Dickinson.[3] A reproduction appears on the United States two-dollar bill.[4]
John Trumbull Commissioned 1817, purchased 1822, placed 1826 British soldiers under General John Burgoyne surrender after the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. The central figure, from the Continental Army, is General Horatio Gates, who refused to accept the traditional sword of surrender that Burgoyne offered. Instead, treating his former foe as a gentleman, General Gates invited General Burgoyne into his tent. The other Americans, shown to the right, are officers serving in the Continental Army. Trumbull planned this outdoor scene to contrast with Declaration of Independence (above), displayed beside it on the wall of the U.S. Capitol rotunda.[5] Both paintings show large groups of people, but one is an indoor scene, while the other is an outdoor scene of similar perspective. The battle was a key victory for the Americans, prevented the division of New England, and secured French military assistance to the Americans.
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis
John Trumbull commissioned 1817, placed 1820 A combined American-French force led by George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Comte de Rochambeau accept the final surrender of British troops under Lord Cornwallis after the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. American General Benjamin Lincoln is portrayed at the center of the painting riding a white horse, with French officers on the left and Americans on the right, led by Washington on the brown horse. The British were represented by officers, but Lord Cornwallis himself was not present and was represented instead by Charles O'Hara. The scene here depicts the same event as the "Surrender of Cornwallis" panel of the "Frieze of American History." Trumbull was proud of the fact that he had painted portraits of the French officers while in France and included a small self-portrait of himself under the American flag on the right side of the painting.[6] As noted above, Washington declined O'Hara's sword because according to the custom of the time it would only be proper for Washington to receive the sword from Cornwallis himself; Major Lincoln accepted the sword in Washington's place. The surrender led to the cessation of major Revolutionary War hostilities and British recognition of American independence in the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
General George Washington Resigning His Commission
John Trumbull commissioned 1817, placed 1824 George Washington addresses Congress to resign his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, on December 23, 1783. Washington is depicted along with two aides-de-camp, as he addresses the president of the Congress. Also shown in the painting are Thomas Mifflin, Elbridge Gerry, and three future U.S. presidents: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison. His wife, Martha Washington, and her three grandchildren, are shown watching from the gallery section (balcony area at right), although they were not in fact present at Washington's resignation.[7] This celebrated incident established a strong tradition of civilian control of the military in the United States and the rejection of military dictatorship in favor of liberal democracy. The U.S. Congress, at the time, was meeting at the Maryland State House in Annapolis.
Landing of Columbus
John Vanderlyn commissioned 1836/1837, placed 1847 In the foreground, Christopher Columbus raises the royal banner to claim the land for Spain, and he stands bareheaded with his hat at his feet in honor of the sanctity of the event. The captains of the ships Niña and Pinta follow, carrying the banner of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. The crew displays a range of emotions, and some search for gold in the sand. Nearby, natives watch from behind a tree at the right.[8] Columbus landed in the West Indies, on San Salvador Island (Guanahani), on October 12, 1492.
Discovery of the Mississippi
William Henry Powell commissioned 1847, purchased 1855 At the center of the canvas, Spanish navigator and conquistador Hernando de Soto rides a white horse. De Soto and his troops approach Native Americans in front of tepees, with a chief holding a peace pipe. The foreground is filled by weapons and soldiers to represent the devastating battle at Mauvila (or Mabila), in which de Soto suffered a Pyrrhic victory over Choctaws under Tuscaloosa. To the right, a monk prays as a large crucifix is set into the ground.[9] Discovery of the Mississippi was the last painting to be commissioned by Congress for the rotunda. De Soto is thought to have become the first European to see the Mississippi River in 1541.
Baptism of Pocahontas
John Gadsby Chapman commissioned 1837, placed 1840 Dressed in white, Pocahontas kneels, surrounded by family members, including her father, Chief Powhatan, and colonists. Her brother Nantequaus turns away from the ceremony. The baptism occurred before her marriage to Englishman John Rolfe, who stands behind her. Pocahontas was baptized (under the name "Rebecca") by the Anglican priest Alexander Whiteaker in Jamestown, Virginia. This event is believed to have taken place in 1613 or 1614. Her union with Rolfe is said to be the first recorded marriage between a European and a Native American. The scene symbolizes the belief of some Americans at the time that native tribes should accept Christianity and other European customs of the period.
Embarkation of the Pilgrims
Robert Walter Weir commissioned 1837, placed 1844 The Pilgrims appear on the deck of the ship Speedwell as they depart Delfshaven in South Holland on July 22, 1620. William Brewster, holding the Bible, and pastor John Robinson lead Governor Carver, William Bradford, Miles Standish, and their families in prayer. The rainbow, at the left side of the painting, symbolizes hope and divine protection.[10] The Pilgrims traveled aboard the Speedwell to Southampton. There they met additional colonists and transferred to the Mayflower.

Statues in the Rotunda

Floor plan showing locations of rotunda paintings, statues and busts in 1978 (prior to the Eisenhower, Reagan & Ford statues, King bust, and women's suffrage monument).

From the Statuary Hall Collection

Among the group of eleven statues currently encircling the rotunda against the wall at floor level are six from the National Statuary Hall Collection:

These six presidents will remain in the rotunda indefinitely or until an act of Congress.

Abraham Lincoln, marble statue by Vinnie Ream

George Washington

The bronze statue of marble portrait of Washington that was carved in 1790 by the French neo-classical sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. Houdon's sculptures have also been used as models for other artists, including the various engravers of the United States Mint who have modeled their engravings of after his work.

Abraham Lincoln

unfinished life.

James Garfield by Charles Niehaus

James Garfield

James Garfield, was the last American president to be born in a log cabin. Sculptor Niehaus returned to America in 1881 and by virtue of being a native Ohioan was commissioned to sculpt a monument to the recently assassinated President James Garfield, who was also from Ohio.

Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of two African-American honored with a bust in the United States Capitol.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The bust of his head and shoulders is 36 inches (91 cm) high and stands on a pyramidal Belgian black marble base that is 66 inches (168 cm) high. Because the bust would be such an important and visible work of art, the Joint Committee on the Library decided to have a national competition to select a sculptor.

On December 21, 1982, the Congress passed House Concurrent Resolution 153, which directed the procurement of a marble bust "to serve to memorialize King's contributions on such matters as the historic legislation of the 1960s affecting civil rights and the right to vote." Senator Charles Mathias, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, the congressional committee overseeing the procurement, said at the unveiling that "Martin Luther King takes his rightful place among the heroes of this nation."

John Wilson; the artist was awarded a $50,000 commission to cast the model in bronze. The bust was unveiled in the Rotunda on January 16, 1986, the fifty-seventh anniversary of Dr. King’s birth, by Mrs. King, accompanied by their four children and Dr. King’s sister.[12]

The Portrait Monument (1920)
Video 1 of The Portrait Monument (1920)
Video 2 of The Portrait Monument (1920)
Image 2 of The Portrait Monument (1920)

Women's suffrage

This group portrait monument is known formally as the Portrait Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, pioneers of the [13]

Other statuary and artifacts

In addition to the National Statuary Hall Collection and the memorial statuary, there are a number of other pieces in the Rotunda. Next to the south entrance, opposite of the statue of George Washington, is a bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson with the Declaration of Independence. Donated by Uriah P. Levy, it is the only work of art in the Capitol given by a private donor.[14] At the west entrance, are marble statues of General Ulysses S. Grant and President Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln statue was a commissioned by Congress and designed by Vinnie Ream. The statue of Grant was a gift to Congress by the Grand Army of the Republic. Located in the southwest portion of the Rotunda is a statue of Alexander Hamilton

The Crypt and National Flame

Originally the crypt had an open ceiling into the rotunda. Visitors can still see the holes in the stone circle that marked the rim of the open space in the rotunda floor. After Washingtons wife Martha had declined to have his tomb set up in the Crypt, his fellows made a motion to instead place a flame there representing the founding values of the nation to be burning eternally: "When the Crypt was first constructed, Congress appointed a keeper of it, and ordered a light to be kept burning continuously within it. This light was not extinguished for over fifty years, and it was not until after the Civil War that the office of 'Keeper of the Crypt' was abolished." [15]

Lying in state and honor

Lying in state in the Capitol rotunda
Thaddeus Stevens lying in state on August 13, 1868. The plaster statue of Abraham Lincoln behind the casket is credited to Henry Jackson Ellicott.
General John J. Pershing saluting the casket of the Unknown Soldier of World War I on November 9, 1921.
Vice President Dick Cheney and members of Congress view the lying in state of Gerald Ford on December 30, 2006.

The main difference between lying in state and lying in honor is the designated guard of honor that keeps watch over the casket. When lying in state, a guard of honor from the United States Armed Forces watch over the casket; when lying in honor, the United States Capitol Police watches as a civilian guard of honor over the casket.

Lain in state

People to have lain in state in the Capitol rotunda are as follows:[16]

Lain in honor

People to have lain in honor in the United States Capitol Rotunda are as follows:[16]

Other notable individuals, several of them being the Chief Justice of the United States, have lain in state in the United States Supreme Court Building while other individuals such as Ronald H. Brown, have lain in state in the Herbert C. Hoover Building.[17]


  1. ^ January 31, 2013.Washington Business Journal.Neibauer, Michael. "U.S. Capitol Dome Restoration Kicks Off With Contractor Search." Accessed 2013-02-04.
  2. ^ a b c Declaration of Independence. Architect of the Capitol
  3. ^ "The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbell." [1]
  4. ^ "Facts About $2 Notes." Bureau of Engraving and Printing, United States Department of the Treasury. [2]
  5. ^ Surrender of General Burgoyne
  6. ^ Surrender of Cornwallis
  7. ^ Washington's Resignation
  8. ^ Landing of Columbus
  9. ^ Discovery of the Mississippi
  10. ^ Embarkation of the Pilgrims
  11. ^ Camia, Catalina (May 3, 2011). "Gerald Ford honored with statue in U.S. Capitol". USA Today. Retrieved 2013-06-11. 
  12. ^ Martin Luther King, Jr
  13. ^
  14. ^ Usofsky, Melvin I. (Summer 2002). "The Levy Family and Monticello".  
  15. ^ West Moore, Joseph (1884). "Picturesque Washington". p. 92. 
  16. ^ a b "Those Who Have Lain in State" The Architect of the Capitol
  17. ^ "The Catafalque" The Architect of the Capitol

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