This is the first in a series of articles, written by the Architect of the Capitol's Curator Office, about the use of nature in the art and architecture of the U.S. Capitol.
The architecture of ancient Greece and Rome that inspired the United States Capitol’s early architects and builders is noted for the sense of solidity and permanence conveyed through its symmetrical, balanced arrangement of carefully proportioned columns, cornices, vaults, pediments and other elements. A close look at these elements reveals that many are enriched and enlivened by designs based on a very unruly place: the natural world.
The Capitol's Dome, ceilings, columns, walls and floors are decorated with depictions of plant and animal life on cast iron, marble, sandstone, painted murals and ceramic tile. Many of these depictions are based on elements from classical art and architecture; others incorporate distinctively American elements.
The Statue of Freedom and its pedestal atop the Capitol Dome provide examples of both the ancient and the contemporary. The robed female figure representing the concept of freedom holds in her left hand a wreath composed of laurel leaves, and laurel wreaths also ring the base of the statue's pedestal, one beneath each of the 12 fasces (bundles of rods symbolizing the authority of the written law) that stretch upward to the encircling motto E Pluribus Unum. In classical Greece and Rome, the laurel represented accomplishment or triumph and was often awarded to the victors of games; this symbolism has persisted in Western culture through the ages.
On the head of the statue, however, we find a new creation derived from the New World. Sculptor Thomas Crawford had earlier proposed a design for the statue in which the figure wore a liberty cap, the classical emblem of a freed slave. When Secretary of War Jefferson Davis objected to its use, asserting that the American people had never been slaves, Crawford developed a helmet comprised of the head, talons and feathers of an eagle, in reference to the dress of American Indians. Beneath a flowing plume of feathers, the eagle's head is lifted proudly toward the sky, its eyes fierce and its beak open as if in loud cry. At either side of Freedom's head hang the bird's sharp, powerful talons—the most muscular elements of the entire statue. In contrast to the erect but relaxed pose and sheathed sword of Freedom herself, this helmet shows the raw power of a majestic bird of prey.
Such a juxtaposition of seemingly disparate Old World and New World elements is often seen in the art and architecture of the Capitol. In representing the early, classically rooted aspirations and later accomplishments of the American nation, human values and deeds typically take precedence, but both are set within the context of the natural world. The elements of that world, ranging from rainbows to flower petals, from acorns to squirrels, frequently appear in symbolic roles but may also be simply decoration to engage the eye. It is a testament to the building's artists and architects over a span of two centuries that these uses can coexist, and frequently overlap, so successfully.