Vladimir Lenin and George Washington: Two Cults, Different Ideals

When Lenin died of a stroke in 1924 the Communist Party was eager to immortalize him. The cult of Lenin that resulted went further than all earlier efforts in the history of Christendom–Christian or post-Christian–to glorify departed leaders.

The case of the United States is an interesting contrast. On the one hand, there were undoubted similarities. The “apotheosis of George Washington” depicted on the interior of the Capitol dome in a capital city named after the first president drew upon the pagan Roman practice of deifying departed emperors (that is, literally declaring them to be gods). Allen Browne Washington was also glorified by a political culture in the early American republic that sought to create an almost mystical sense of his ongoing presence, expressed later by innumerable sites scattered throughout the eastern United States claiming that “George Washington slept here.”

The difference between the cult of Washington and that of Lenin, however, was not just that the one was committed to individual rights and the other to totalitarian dictatorship. What really made the difference was that while Washington showed relative indifference to traditional Christianity and seems to have favored its Enlightenment alternative of deism, Lenin was an atheist and intended to create a civilization of atheists. And it was this goal that colored the cultural revolution that gave rise to his posthumous cult. Continue reading

From Christ Pantocrator to George Washington Pantocrator

In a post earlier this week, I asked how paradise was manifested in early Christendom. To illustrate, I described the convention within the eastern Church of building temples with a central dome within which an icon of Christ Pantocrator was painted. The effect was that worshipers looking up into the dome experienced “heaven on earth,” or paradise.

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The original model of the Christian dome was the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the largest church in the world when it was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. (By the way, this became the model for Muslim architecture as well, which began to proliferate after the conquest of large parts of Christian Byzantium during the following century and culminated with the actual conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when Hagia Sophia was first desecrated by the Muslim conquerors and then converted into a mosque–to hear that story, readers can listen to my podcast episode about it here). In the centuries that followed the construction of Hagia Sophia, paradise continued to be experienced in the world through Christian worship and the liturgical art that accompanied it.

However, in the nineteenth century, at the close of the American Civil War, another building with a huge central dome was being completed: the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

What a difference a millennium makes! On the one hand, the Capitol building grew out of the tradition within Christendom of erecting monumental structures with central domes within which icons, or “images,” were painted. In this case, however, the design for the image was motivated by modern Christendom’s alternative to paradise, utopia.

The painting can be seen by any tourist to (or resident of) the nation’s capital to this day. Standing within the famous rotunda below, a proud citizen or respectful foreigner gazes up one hundred and eighty feet into this most symbolic of American domes to behold  the image of . . . George Washington.

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One is tempted to call it “George Washington Pantocrator” because in addition to appearing in majesty as Christ did in early Christian dome icons (the right hand is even outstretched as if in blessing), the first president is surrounded by figures emphasizing the greatness of America and her power to build a perfect civilization on earth.

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Farming and industry, science and commerce: the whole range of earthly potential is celebrated. A personified War even appears there, wielding a sword against the nation’s enemies as did the Archangel Michael against the Church’s foes in ancient Christian iconography.

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It is a good example of modern Christendom’s secularization of paradise.

What is also of much interest is that the actual title of the painting is The Apotheosis of George Washington.  One translation of apotheosis (from the Greek word for deity) is “deification.” It is the word that was used by the pagan Roman state when it claimed its departed emperors were gods and called upon Christians, among others, to worship them.

What does this fascinating painting within one of our nation’s most famous buildings say about the  Christian heritage of American civilization?