Famous Ceilings: Library of Congress

Written by Milan Jara

The Library of Congress is the official research library of the United States Congress and is purported to be the largest library in the world. It is the country's oldest federal cultural institution and is housed in three large buildings in Washington, D.C., and Virginia. The Thomas Jefferson Building, built in the nation's capital between the years 1890 and 1897, is the oldest of the library's three buildings. It is famous for its neoclassical architecture and elegantly adorned interior. The building is also home to two of the world's most well-known ceilings, found in its Great Hall and Main Reading Room.


The ceiling of the library's Great Hall at the front of the building is inlaid with six decorative stained-glass skylights and aluminum plating. Along the perimeter of the ceiling are the names of ten authors, considered to have made great contributions to literature. They are Dante, Homer, Milton, Bacon, Aristotle, Goethe, Shakespeare, Moliere, Moses, and Herodotus. At each corner of the ceiling are two winged figures of genius, shown with traditional emblems of knowledge, a torch and a book.


There is a balcony above the Great Hall, consisting of four second-floor corridors, each with an intricately decorated vaulted ceiling. The ceiling in the North Corridor sports brightly colored paintings by Robert Reid and rectangular panels by Frederic C. Martin; Reid's five octagonal paintings depict representations of the five senses, and Martin's panels portray six scenes of ancient athletes participating in sporting events. On the East Corridor's vaulted ceiling, one can find three panels by William Andrew MacKay, representing the Life of Man, accompanied by quotes from literature. Lining the vaulted ceiling on both side are eight paintings by Randolph Barse, Jr., meant to represent different genres of literature. The South Corridor's ceiling contains three octagonal paintings by Frank Weston Benson, illustrating the Three Graces, namely Husbandry, Music, and Beauty. Three panels by William B. Van Ingen dominate the West Corridor's vaulted decorative ceiling. Ingen's paintings are meant to represent Sculpture, Architecture, and Painting. Along either side of the ceiling are four rectangular paintings by Walter Shirlaw, for a total of eight illustrations depicting eight different sciences: Archaeology, Botany, Astronomy, Chemistry, Zoology, Physics, Mathematics, and Geology.


The Main Reading Room of the Thomas Jefferson, researchers age 16 and above can go to gain access to the library's general collections, which include some 70,000 volumes. The large, octagonal room is capped with a gigantic, coffered dome designed by sculptor Albert Weinert. An American painter named Edwin Howland Blashfield created the murals that decorate the dome of the Main Reading Room. Inside the lantern of the dome, one can see a round mural of Human Understanding, depicted as a female figure flanked by two cherubs. She is shown lifting the veil of ignorance from her eyes. On the collar of the dome is Blashfield's Evolution of Civilization, a mural of twelve male and female winged figures meant to represent twelve countries, civilizations, eras, and religions that were thought to have made the greatest contributions to western civilization. The figures are Egypt, Judea, Greece, Rome, Islam, The Middle Ages, Italy, Germany, Spain, England, France, and America. America is portrayed as an engineer, seated behind an electric dynamo, and is meant to represent the country's contributions to science and technology.


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