The Pilgrims in the Capitol

The images in the U.S. Capitol are as follows:

In the Rotunda:
A relief of the Landing of the Puritans.
A painting of the Embarkation of the Pilgrims at Delft Haven, Holland, July 22nd, 1620.
A scene of the Landing of Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass., 1620; within the Rotunda frieze.

In the President's Room of the Senate Wing:
A symbolic painting of William Brewster, signifying Religion.

In Statuary Hall
A Statue of Roger Williams

In the Hall of Columns
A Statue of John Winthrop


The Pilgrims in the Rotunda


The Landing of the Pilgrims, 1620 was contributed by Enrico Causici in 1825, and is one of four reliefs which stand over the four Rotunda doors. The others are: Conflict of Daniel Boone with the Indians, Preservation of Captain Smith by Pocahantas, and William Penn's Treaty with the Indians. As Vivien Fryd points out, all are representations of early contact points with Native Americans, and all indicate "the inevitable subjugation or assimilation of the Indian race" (Fryd, 40). All completed within the mid to late 1820s, they anticipated and then condoned an ideology that would see its political manifestation most clearly in the 1830 act of Indian Removal.

The Landing of the Pilgrims employs the religious signification of the Pilgrims, even as it portrays an apparent inevitability of European- based domination. The Indian is massive; a purely physical creature. All he has to offer is raw nature, in the corn he holds out and the rock he sits upon. The look on his face is a pitiful grimace, a seemingly dull recognition that the person before him is to be looked up to and entreated-- for what, is not clear. The Pilgrim 'Father' is defined as such by the presence of wife and child, and the former's upturned eyes suggest that the undeniable confidence and power is founded in an assurance of heavenly purpose. It suggests that the woman's open hand which greets God, is part of what draws down Providential power; transfers it through her other arm and hand down into her son, whose own left arm begins an arc that seems to blend into the father and emerge at his other side in his own upheld hand. The hand of the Pilgrim Father is in this way both greeting and warning in the same action.



The Embarkation of the Pilgrims at Delft Haven, Holland, July 22nd, 1620 was painted by Robert W. Weir in 1843. It stands as one of eight paintings in the Rotunda, which together form a narrative of early American history. Four of the paintings were completed by John Trumbull in the late 1810s and early 20s, and portray different important moments of the Revolutionary era: the signing of the Declaration, the surrender of Burgoyne and of Cornwallis, and the resignation of Washington. The others take as their themes Pocahontas, De Soto, and Columbus, and were added between 1840 and 1855.

The reason for its inclusion is indicated by its obvious religious significance; it provides a symbolic image in moral and spiritual terms of American destiny. It is a gathering for prayer on the deck of the ship Speedwell, where the scene is framed by a symbol of progress and conquest--the ship itself, the physical means of transport to the New World--even as its center is dominated by the whiteness of the Bible, the most visible words of which are "Jesus Christ." The rainbow in the background suggests not only "hope" but also "the Chosen People, who seek a milennial destiny for mankind in the chosen land" (Fryd, 53-54). And in this is one reason for its placement not at Plymouth Rock or anywhere in New England, because here the New World is most completely depicted as 'New'. Here it is a promise yet to be fulfilled-- something out of the past, as recorded in Scripture, and yet something which in part lies always in the future. Once again, the Pilgrims become symbols of the moral mission of the Republic; Bancroft comes to mind, as does in general the use of the Pilgrim/Puritan sense of errand as the continuing realization of a glorious, God-like society in this world. The context which Fryd outlines underscores the point: the 1840s were a "period of increased westward expansion" that marked the "acquisition of Oregon" and "half a million square miles of territory including California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Arizona, most of New Mexico, and portions of Wyoming and Colorado" (Fryd, 59). Moral and geographic greatness were undoubtedly permeable understandings, so that even when the land was attained through an event like the Mexican War, it might ultimately be justified by the righteous promise of the Embarkation.


The Rotunda frieze depicts a panoramic view of what have been seen to be representative moments of U.S. history--from the landing of Columbus to the Revolutionary War to the Civil War and on. The first third of the frieze--including the Landing of the Pilgrims--was completed by Constantino Brumidi before is death in 1880. The Puritan scene falls between an image of Pocahantas saving John Smith, and one of Penn's treaty with the Indians.

The scene depicts a peaceful, familial scene. The puppy playing with a child suggests a harmonious relationship between the new arrivals and nature, where the Pilgrims stand as a benevolent and superior force of civilization and domestication. The figure hefting the chest indicates a general sense of hard work, so that its place in the 'national story' of the frieze suggests the origin of a national work ethic, a partial explanation for the strength and growth of the Union--especially in terms of the booming industry of the Gilded Age, in which the image was completed. And of course, central to the image is the outstretched arms and upturned eyes, the symbol of moral conscience and righteous errand, of peacefulness and humility, which had become synecdoche for the whole of the experience of early New England.



The painting of William Brewster is part of a thematic representation in the President's room of the Senate Wing, signifying Religion. The other themes are: Discovery (Christopher Columbus); History (Benjamin Franklin); Exploration (Americus Vespucius).

The statues of Roger Williams and John Winthrop were chosen by the respective states that they were commissioned to represent--Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The statue of Williams was sculpted by Franklin Simmons in 1870; that of Winthrop by Richard S. Greenough in 1875.



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