The Rotunda is the heart of the U.S. Capitol, containing emblems of what have been considered the important events in U.S. history: paintings and reliefs of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, important events during the Revolution, and the discovery and founding of the country. The gateway, the Columbus Doors, to the display of these icons is symbolically just as important.
The Columbus Doors at the east entrance of the Rotunda are an imposing welcome to the heart of the gallery of national myths. Standing nearly 17 feet tall, and weighing 20,000 pounds, Randolph Roger's alto-relief bronze doors make a powerful statement about not only their subject, Christopher Columbus, but the importance of Columbus to the national consciousness.
Rogers, born in Waterloo, NY in 1825, studied sculpture in Rome and, through his acquaintance with Capt. Montgomery C. Meigs, Superintendent of the Capitol Extensions, received the commission for the rotunda doors in 1855. Meigs, in a letter to his superior, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, described Rogers as "young, full of ambition, self-reliant, not younger than Ghiberti when his designs secured him the preference over all competitors for the gates of Florence Baptistry." (Fairman, 157) The allusion to Ghiberti's work (seen at the right) is of twofold interest: first, it emphasizes Randolph's great talent for his years, and second, it connects this American undertaking with that of Renaissance Florence. As can be seen in the analysis of the door panels, the treatment of the subject matter is everywhere reminiscent of Ghiberti's work.
The commission for the doors was approved on May 25, 1855 and Rogers traveled to Rome to complete the models. The celebration of Columbus' life was Rogers' idea; he believed "Perhaps there is but one man [i.e., George Washington] whose name is more intimately connected with the history of this country, or who better deserves a lasting monument to his memory than Christopher Columbus." (Quincentenary, 10) Rogers based the narratives in the doors on Washington Irving's Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1835), and included in his design busts of 10 historians famous for their work on Columbus.
The models for the doors, which were initially intended to be placed at the entrance to the new House wing near Statuary Hall, were completed in 1857 and cast by the Royal Bavarian Foundry (which is rumored to still own the models) in Munich in 1860. The doors were enventually installed in 1863, and in 1871 were moved to their current position of honor at the main entrance to the Rotunda when the building was later remodeled in the mid-twentieth century.
Rogers' design owes much to Ghiberti: the portrait busts of the historians; the allegorical figures of Asia, Africa, Europe and America; the dramatic and heroic representation of the subject matter. Beginning at the bottom left panel and moving clockwise, the narrative and symbolism of Columbus' life as expressed in these doors provide a basis for a basic American myth and a framework for American self-conception.