Spanish – The Capitol rotunda, located just below the building’s great dome, is, so to speak, the symbolic heart of the United States, and its decoration includes eight large oil paintings, evocative of “key” moments in American history. Among them, the one shown in the photo titled “Embarkation of the Pilgrims” by Robert Weir.
A painting that, in these turbulent times for American society, brings together some “key” elements to reflect upon. We chose seven.
Secret number 1. The history of the painting can be traced back to a 12th century London prison.
The so-called Clink Prison, located in London’s Southwark district, was one of the oldest and most infamous prisons of its time. Founded by Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and grandson of none other than William the Conqueror, this prison housed numerous “sinners” of all stripes, politically dangerous figures, and religious rebels throughout its 600-year history. Among the latter, for example, was John Rogers, imprisoned for having had the audacity to translate the Bible from Latin to English and burned at the stake in front of his wife and children during the reign of Mary I Tudor in 1555.
The prison was also visited by several “contingents” of Puritans, that is, Protestant Christians who did not commune with the official church of England, such as John Greenwood or Henry Barrow, who were hanged for circulating seditious literature in 1593. But Greenwood and Barrow had laid the foundations of a powerful, though subterranean, religious community from which were to emerge none other than the first settlers of North America; the so-called “Pilgrim Fathers.”
And it was their quest for freedom, in this case religious, that prompted them to embark on a long, costly and dangerous voyage, whose flagship would be the famous “Mayflower.”
Secret number 2. The ship reproduced in the painting is not the Mayflower
But this is not the ship whose deck is described in the painting but a second ship, the Speedwell. The scene is set in the moment in July 1620, before it left Holland for England, where it would meet the Mayflower for a joint voyage. Subsequently, a couple of successive breakdowns on the Speedwell would cause the passengers to unite on the Mayflower. Onboard the Mayflower, after 66 days of navigation, the colonists arrived at the shores of what is now Massachusetts. The name of the ship and the date of the expedition are explicitly stated in the chart on the step in the foreground.
Secret number 3. The painting has many symbolic elements
Men, women, and children in various outfits appear ready to pray, probably asking for divine protection for the dangerous enterprise they are about to undertake. In fact, in the upper left corner, it is possible to read an inscription, placed on the edge of the ship’s sail, with the text “God with us.” The armor, the hull, and the musket in the foreground evoke potential dangers to be faced, and the background presents, on the right and left respectively, the city they are about to leave and a rainbow, a symbol of hope.
Secret number 4. The work was reproduced both by the painter himself and by the Federal Reserve
Hanging in the Capitol rotunda, the painting was an absolute success, and in 1857, the artist produced another version, which is in the Brooklyn Museum. It is not a question of playing the game of differences. But in addition to its dimensions, substantially smaller than those of the original, Weir also changed the general lighting, thus giving greater emphasis to the central figures.
But there is another even more curious reproduction. In the form of a monochromatic engraving, the work was also used to illustrate the obverse of the 10,000 dollar bills issued by the Federal Reserve in 1918. To date, there are only five registered copies of these bills in institutional collections.
Secret number 5. The colonists signed the first legal political founding instrument of the United States
The so-called “Mayflower Pact,” signed by 41 of the Mayflower’s male passengers, is considered a precedent of the United States Constitution, as it was the first document to establish a minimum institutional organization.
A painting by Edward Percy Moran, a painter who was known for his historical works, takes us back imaginatively to the instance of that signature. The work is at the Plymouth Museum.
Secret number 6. The pilgrim fathers, immigrants in an emergency, were helped by the natives
In the harsh winter that followed their arrival, the pilgrim fathers had no other accommodation than the ship itself, and food was scarce. They faced a bleak future. But fortunately, members of the Algonquin tribe of the Wampanoag came spontaneously to their aid and taught them, for example, the techniques of growing native plants such as pumpkin or corn, which enabled them to overcome these early obstacles and settle down definitively. According to some historians, the celebration of the first harvest was the origin of the Thanksgiving tradition. In any case, a whole manifestation of peaceful multicultural cooperation.
Secret number 7. The episode referred to in the painting laid the foundation of American culture
Another early traveler was John Harvard, who went to these lands in 1637. His legacy to posterity was nothing less than the foundational gift of real estate and his personal library to the University that now bears his name.
And one last curious fact to conclude: John Lothropp, pastor of the Southwark Independent Church, arrived on American soil in a ship called The Griffin. His descendants, who today number more than 80,000, include presidents of the United States – Ulysses S Grant, Franklin D Roosevelt. and both Bushes -, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, numerous governors, financier John Pierpont Morgan, artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and Georgia O’Keeffe, show business figures such as Shirley Temple, Brooke Shields, Clint Eastwood, or Kevin Bacon, and even Nick Carter, one of the members of The Backstreet Boys. All of them, in some way, connect us to that London prison from which the pilgrim parents fled in search of freedom.