The State Capitol: Powerful Lessons Beyond Decorations
I don’t know if I’ll ever tire of seeing the beautiful state capitol as I drive into Madison each morning. The towering dome is frequently resplendent against the dark blue of an early summer morning, and at other times it is shrouded in fog so dense you can’t even see the dome. In spite of the fact that I often don’t like what takes place in the capitol, I really do enjoy the unique and stately beauty of this Beaux-Arts capitol building. All of this and more is precisely why people flock to our capital city and our state capitol.
Trained tour guides talk to visitors about the size of the building, the height from the ground floor to the top of the statue “Forward” on the dome, the marble and granite that were used in the construction, the 10,000 light fixtures, the 100,000 pieces of glass used in each of the 4 mosaics in the rotunda. These tour guides take the groups to all the normal places—highlights, if you will—and answer endless questions about Old Abe, the Bald Eagle in the Assembly chamber, about the fish fountain in the annex to the Governor’s Conference Room, and about the doors high up in the inner dome.
I’ve been on some of those tours with visitors. I admit that hearing about the capitol building, about how long it took to build it, how long the tunnel is, and so on is interesting. But I hardly ever hear tour guides talk about what really makes the building important or about some of the great symbols in and on this magnificent building.
If I were leading a tour group, here’s some of what I would tell people about our capitol –
One of the most powerful reminders we see in the art in the capitol building is that even as recently as when this capitol was built, which was between 1906 and 1917, the traditional family and religion played important roles.
Statuary groups that are over each of the entrances to the wings of the capitol powerfully exemplify this. The group on the East Pediment, over the wing housing the Supreme Court and the Executive offices, is known as “Liberty Supported by the Law.” One of the figures in the group is resting his hand on the Ten Commandments, while another shields that tablet. The sculptor also included in this statuary a family group in which the mother is shown teaching her children the principles of right living.
The North Pediment features a group of figures representing the attributes of civilization. Included in this grouping is a mother and child, symbolizing maternity, the home, and family—the very foundations of society. According to the sculptor, the mother is approaching the shrine of Wisdom, seeking knowledge to instruct and guide her child, in whom lies the hope of the future. She rests her hand on her husband’s shoulder.
Additional exterior statuary groups include those over the main entrances. The one above the Southeast entrance represents “Faith.” According to information on this statue, the author intended this group to symbolize religious faith. The two figures seated to the right and left of the central figure bow their heads in obedience to divine and civil law, represented by that central figure. The official Wisconsin State Capitol book says by placing “this group over the main entrance to the Capitol, the artist elected to emphasize the importance of religion as a force in the development of good citizenship.”
Inside the rotunda are 4 beautiful mosaics representing the three branches of Wisconsin government and liberty. In the Liberty mosaic, Liberty is seated and with her right hand she guards the ballot box, which is the way real liberty is secured in a republic. Liberty’s left hand is pointing to heaven and the artist wrote, “In a republic it’s as if the voice of the people is the will of God.”
In the mosaic representing the legislative branch, according to the artist himself, “Legislation is represented as a powerful old man with a long beard, reminiscent of the accepted type of Moses, the first lawgiver….is left hand rests upon the table of the law,” or the Ten Commandments.
It’s too bad that so many come into this beautiful capitol building and miss some of the really important features, features that remind us that our law is based in the Ten Commandments, that freedom of religion is part of what makes us a strong people, and that the traditional family unit is truly the foundation of society. Those are powerful lessons that are much more than just part of the decorations of one of the nation’s most beautiful state capitols.