Our family visited Washington DC last year. Among the usuals, we were toured through something I’d never heard of before: the Capitol Crypt.
Beneath the dome of the Capitol Rotunda, below the ground floor, is a round room with forty Doric columns. A star set in the middle of the room marks the spot from which all streets in the capital were laid out.
The plan was to inter George Washington there in a stately sarcophagus. But Washington’s family refused to allow it, as George had opposed any imperial tendencies in the Presidency. He is said to have declined the title “Your Excellency” in favor of “Mr. President,” resisted a second term and refused a third, returning instead to life as a gentleman farmer.
The crypt now lies empty, a monument to our refusal of monarchy.
I loved this story instantly and was quite disappointed later — though not surprised, I guess — to learn that it’s mostly fable. After initially resisting the idea of moving his remains from Mount Vernon, Martha Washington acquiesced in 1800. Construction delays and the War of 1812 pushed the plan back. By the time it was finished in 1827, tensions between the North and South were such that Southern legislators and others refused to allow his remains to leave Virginia. So the Capitol Crypt lies empty as a tribute not so much to high democratic principle as to simmering provincial enmity.
But it is apparently true that Washington opposed having himself revered. And we, being what we are, revere him for that.
In 1865, a fresco The Apotheosis of Washington was completed in the oculus of the Rotunda dome (“apotheosis” = “to transform into a god,” from Greek apotheoun) to show Washington that he wasn’t about to win a battle between what he wanted to be and what we needed him to be:
A close look reveals just how George would have felt about it:
This is what we do. No matter how much the founder of a movement or tradition or religion resists deification, we’ll start building the temple the moment s/he’s gone.
On his deathbed, the Buddha is said to have laughed when his followers suggested he was a god. They had the last laugh, as survivors do. But Buddha is quoted in the Digha Nikaya discouraging representations of himself “after the extinction of the body” because he saw it as a denial of that extinction. The prohibition was followed until the first century CE, at which point Greek influence led to a flowering of Buddhist iconography.
Buddha could not be reached for comment.
Christianity and Judaism also have a clear prohibition on images, one that’s ignored by way of clever abridgement. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” says the version we know and say and carve into courthouses. The rest is less convenient: “…nor any likeness of any thing that is in Heaven above, nor that is in the earth beneath, nor that is in the water under the earth.” The Sistine Chapel has some ‘splainin’ to do.
I’ve also recently learned that the Islamic prohibition on images of Muhammad, so much in the news of late, was originally intended not to elevate Muhammad to divine status, but to prevent exactly that. From an outstanding recent article in the Washington Post:
“In the Holy Koran of Islam,” says political scientist As’ad AbuKhalil, a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley, “the one sin unforgivable is that of polytheism. The prohibition is intended to protect the faithful from that sin. The fear was that intense reverence for the prophet might if unrestrained cross over into worship.“
Well what do you know. Once again, we silly monkeys take a good idea and flip it inside out. A rule established to avoid intense worship of the wrong thing instead fuels that worship. Ironically, then, the creators of the prohibition on images of Muhammad and the creators of Everybody Draw Muhammad end up sharing a principle with each other, and Buddha, and George Washington: opposition to the slavish worship of the wrong things.