Apotheosis and Popular Culture

The Rotunda
The Apotheosis of Washington

Standing under the massive rotunda of the US Capitol is a pretty awe-inspiring experience. The dome is an architectural masterpiece and national treasure. In the oculus 180 feet overhead is a beautiful fresco painted by Constanino Brumidi entitled The Apotheosis of Washington. It is reminiscent of the frescos we saw in the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum and apartments.  I was amazed at the degree to which the painting deified George Washington. Admittedly, Washington was one of those larger-than-life individuals that literally changed the course of history. Few would dispute that the United States of America would even exist were it not for his leadership. But in spite of all he was and did, he was merely a man and these were very high honors. 

But if you check out the definition of apotheosis, then you realize the painting accomplishes exactly what it set out to do. 

Apotheosis: the elevation or exaltation of a person to the rank of a god; deification

In nineteenth century America, George Washington was adored and idealized as a leader. Washington’s apotheosis was tolerated and even welcomed by populist thinking. Most would concede this deification was artistic hyperbole and highly metaphorical.  But surprisingly, it was not deemed to be blasphemous–even to a deeply religious populace with puritanical roots.  

I left the Capitol and other Washington monuments with a measure of surprise by the degree to which the nation has deified it’s founding fathers (the Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt memorials to name a few). I was reminded of the cult religions of Imperial Rome, in which Emperors were deified after death to join the panoply of gods. Washington, like Agustus, could transcend mortality and enter the sphere of deity by proclamation of the Senate. 

I really don’t have a problem with the honors we pay to these founding fathers. But as a culture we’ve taken things way too far. After I returned home I overheard two of my staff deeply engrossed with their apotheosis of one of the Kardashians.  The K-A-R-D-A-S-H-I-A-N-S! Just writing the word somehow cheapens this post. Napoleon Bonaparte quipped: “from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.” If so, then society is taking giant steps like astronauts on the moon in zero gravity. Our apotheosis of celebrities, athletes and even criminals creates a panoply of new deities that consumes our leisure time as we scramble to pay them homage. 

It is interesting to see similar patterns at play in history. Imperial Rome’s habit of apotheosis of leaders became a laughing stock, as one inept or corrupt ruler after another was deified and then worshiped. Seneca the Younger, thought that apotheosis had been taken way too far in Rome and didn’t view the “new” gods as legitimate. Taking a shot at an old political rival that had banished him, he wrote a political satire* on the apotheosis of Claudius. It was entitled The Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudii (literally The Pumkinification of the Divine Claudius). Seneca and Napoleon were clearly on the same page. 


Our penchants for the apotheosis of everything unholy is a flaw in the fabric of humanity that can be traced back to the earliest times.  It is seen in the idolatry of the Old Testament and the pride of the Book of Mormon. It is wrapped up in the worship of self that so plagues the modern church. I’m as guilty as the next guy, but think that Seneca may be on to a potential antidote. If we could substitute apocolocyntosis for apotheosis on a more regular basis, we may be less inclined to spend our time worshiping stuff that will neither save us or make us happy.

If not apotheosis, then a bad case of obsession

Apocolocyntosis . . . keeping it real

*Apocolocynthosis (gourdification or pumpkinification) is a parody on the word apotheosis

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