At the Library of Congress: a Symphony in Gold and Marble

No matter how often experienced, stepping into the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building, the crown jewel among the three buildings housing the Library of Congress, is always a revelation, a feast for the eyes, and a bit of a shock to the system (for the greatest effect, enter the Library through its grand entrance, up the exterior stairs and through the three giant bronze doors. Prepare to gasp).

Two bronze women bearing torches of knowledge, the exposed bulb celebrating the invention of electricity, welcome visitors to the Great Hall and help illuminate the gilded mosaic above

Opened to much fanfare in 1897, this was the first permanent home of the Library of Congress, “the book palace of the American people.” The building was meant to celebrate the young country’s achievements in science, art, and literature and unequivocally signal its position as a worthy and natural heir to the most lasting of triumphs of world’s civilizations.

Yesterday, I was here for the Library’s photography meetup, guided by the staff from the Prints and Photographs Division. It is a scavenger hunt meant to help curate a new set of photographs for the Library’s Flicker account, an experiment in facilitating community engagement through Flicker Commons.

Armed with a sheet of images to discover, I charted my way through the building and the story it told through its murals, mosaics, and statues.

The Zodiac Floor in the Great Hall , Library of Congress

The Zodiac Floor in the Great Hall

It all begins, of course, in the Great Hall, the centerpiece of the Jefferson Building. With intricate ceilings above, it is easy to miss the tapestry of European and American marble underfoot. You tread upon stars: the brilliant sun in the center, inscribed with four cardinal points of the compass and surrounded on four sides with the twelve signs of the zodiac.

Two grand staircases flank the Great Hall, overseen by shrouded torchbearers and enlivened by an assembly of putti, children personifying the various occupations and pursuits of the brave new world: a physician,  an electrician (with a telephone), an astronomer, an entomologist, a mechanic, a chemist–a fascinating mash-up of classical form and modern attributes. Some of these looked to me like statements against child labor, their marble faces preoccupied and gaunt (or was it the  light?).

Gardener, Great Hall North Side, Library of Congress

Gardener

Half-way up each staircase are two children, personifying continents and clinging to a globe: Asia and Europe sit on the northern staircase, and Africa and America perch on the southern.

Library of Congress Jefferson Building, Child Continents in the Great Hall

Child continents

But before climbing the stairs, venture to the East Corridor, with its vaulted mosaic ceilings honoring American scientists and artists and graced by six murals depicting the Evolution of the Book–from memory to spoken, written, and printed word. At the center of this corridor, facing each other, are two of the Library’s treasures: the Giant Bible of Mainz, a beautifully illustrated handwritten tome, and the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed with movable metal type and one of only three perfect vellum copies in the world (the others are at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and the British Library in London).

In the rear of the East Corridor, is the old entrance to the Main Reading Room, surrounded by murals depicting good and bad government–but leave that for later. The first glimpses of the Reading Room are better caught from the Library’s third floor.

The second floor continues to dazzle with murals, marble columns, and quotes meant to elevate, instruct, and inspire.

The idyllic view of the Capitol and the Mall is not to be missed as well, best seen in the moody morning light (the Library opens at 8:30 Monday to Saturday).

Finally, guarded by Minerva, Protector of Civilization, is the staircase leading up to the Visitor Gallery overlooking the Main Reading Room.

With her armor at her feet, this is Minerva of Peace, still a vigilant guardian of civilization. An inscription from Horace proclaims in Latin, “Not unwilling, Minerva raises a monument more lasting than bronze.”

The view of the Reading Room is magnificent, and you get to see it from the same perspective as the sixteen bronze “Heroes of Knowledge”–from Homer and Plato to Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, and Beethoven. Anyone can get a library card (you do need a subject to research) and access this room–I will come back to view it from within one day. The architectural details are stunning and worth a separate post all of their own (here). Photography is not allowed in the Visitor Gallery, so this story will have to wait for later (the Main Reading Room is open to the non-researching public–and photography–only twice a year: on Presidents Day in February, and on the second Monday in October).

Satiated and a little fatigued from all the splendor, I made my way down and back to the steamy July morning outside, but not before sneaking a peek at Jefferson’s books (on the second floor), the nucleus of the Library’s collection.

The dome above Jefferson’s books (you can’t photograph the display)–after most of the Library’s original holdings were destroyed in the fires set to the  US Capitol by the British in 1814, Jefferson sold to the Congress his personal collection of over 6,000 tomes. Two-thirds of Jefferson’s books were lost in the Christmas Eve fire of 1851. The current display is part of the Library’s attempt to recreate Jefferson’s original library as sold to the Congress in 1815. The breadth of topics covered is nothing short of impressive: “There is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer,” Jefferson said, defining the principle of acquisition for the Library in the years to come.

Outside, the Neptune Fountain is a cool spot to gather your thoughts and plot your next steps.

At the time of the Library’s grand opening, this was the country’s most lavishly decorated fountain

The joyful figure of the sea nymph is my favorite.

Better Together: From the Library, I like taking a stroll through the US Capitol grounds and the beautiful US Botanic Garden to the National Museum of the American Indian for a performance and the best cafeteria on the Mall, Mitisam Native Foods Cafe.

The Museum of the American Indian, seen from the US Botanic Garden path

Read on: 

8 thoughts on “At the Library of Congress: a Symphony in Gold and Marble

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