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The Blashfield mural above the Main Reading Room. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Look Up! It’s Blashfield’s Mural

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The artwork of the magnificent Jefferson Building reaches its pinnacle, literally, with a painted homage to learning and progress set high up in the dome.

Each day, visitors and researchers who enter the Main Reading Room crane their necks as far back as they can to take in “Human Understanding,” a mural created by American artist Edwin Howland Blashfield at the apex of the soaring, coffered dome.

In Blashfield’s work, a beautiful female figure, set against a soft blue background, lifts away a veil of ignorance. On her right, a cherub holds a book of wisdom. To her left, another cherub seems to beckon viewers far below to join in a quest for knowledge.

In the collar just below, 12 painted figures represent countries or epochs that, when the mural was completed in 1896, were thought to have contributed the most to Western civilization.

Rome, for example, represents administration, Islam physics, Greece philosophy and Italy the fine arts. The English figure, representing literature, holds a copy of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The character symbolizing Judea and religion sits beside a pillar inscribed with the biblical admonition to love thy neighbor as thyself.

One character might look familiar: The figure embodying America (and science) was modeled on a young Abraham Lincoln, here sitting in a machine shop, pondering a problem of mechanics.

An extreme close up shows of the mural shows a muscular young man in a tank top, work pants and bare feet, chin on his left palm, studying a small mechanical device
A character modeled on Abraham Lincoln represents America and science. Photo: Shawn Miller

“Human Understanding” is full of coded meaning, leaving its significance not always apparent to the upturned faces some 125 feet below. But there is, of course, another aspect to the scene that’s impossible to miss: the awe-inspiring beauty of Blashfield’s work and its glorious setting.

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Comments (3)

  1. How lovely, many thanks for your informative interpretation. The arts & humanities help to build community, now more than ever.

  2. A beautiful mural. It’s special to see it on a laptop, where it can be enlarged and the details seen more clearly than in the library.

  3. I so enjoyed this beautiful art on my first visit to the Library that I have a magnetic copy of it on my refrigerator. 🙂
    Thank you for pointing out the representations. Enjoy the day!

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