Bronze doors had long road to the Capitol

The Amateis Bronze Doors resemble a portal to an ancient world. The 13-foot-tall doors just outside the Rotunda evoke sidelong glances from passers-by and might even cause them to stop in their tracks.

Cast from bronze, the doors consist of eight vertical panels and one horizontal panel on top. The top panel, which stretches more than seven feet, is called the Apotheosis of America, in which sculptor Louis Amateis depicted his version of the American spirit. 

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The doors were built in 1910 for the entrance to the Capitol’s west front, but because legislation for the improvement of the west front was not passed, they were never used for their intended purpose. 

Congress commissioned the doors for $15,525, wanting to cast them in bronze so that they would last for generations. They were built as an answer to the Capitol’s grand east front doors, which explains the Bronze Doors’ lavishness and ornate detail. 

In the doors’ top panel, Amateis depicts America as a man sitting in a chariot. Lions lead the chariot and, in turn, a child leads the lions. The man is stretching his arms toward nine figures, representing literature, mining, architecture, painting, music, sculpture, scholarship, commerce and industry. 

This theme of American development continues down the eight vertical panels. Each one illustrates an American accomplishment and the people who excelled in that field, like Chief Justice John Marshall, who sits stoically presiding over the Supreme Court; men of science, gathered in Athenian robes, brows furrowed in thought; the great composers, philosophers and writers of history, deep in conversation; and miners, flexing their muscles and preparing to deliver the next blow to the iron ore. 

Other panels show farmers hard at work, one man on his knees, tilling the earth into submission, and another behind him wiping sweat from his brow; iron and electricity workers using pure force to work their machines while two men pore over a limp scroll of plans; and engineers banding together to lay down the tracks of the transcontinental railroad.

The doors were put on display in the Corcoran Gallery of Art after the legislation to renew the west front didn’t pass, and they stayed there for four years. They were then moved to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History until 1967, when they were returned to the Capitol. 

They were placed near the Rotunda not only because the space accommodated their massive size, but also so that the large number of staffers and visitors who walk that corridor could admire them, a Capitol official said.

“Many members have noted how beautiful and interesting they are,” curator Barbara Wolanin said. “Given their location, groups of people go by them every day, and they enjoy and appreciate the craftsmanship and how the panels depict great American accomplishments.”

The doors were cast in the “lost wax” technique, which is when a metal is cast using an artist’s sculpture. This practice was popular in Europe and allowed for the artist to give vivid detail to his or her work. 

These doors were modeled on Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” doors at the Baptistry in Florence, Italy. Amateis, born in Turin in 1855, is also known for his monument to the heroes of the Texas Revolution.

Amateis can rest assured his work will last through the generations, according to Wolanin. 

“In keeping with the Architect of the Capitol’s mission to preserve and maintain the Capitol campus,” she said, “we plan to conserve the Amateis Doors in spring 2013.”

Art: The Amateis Bronze Doors

Location: Second floor of the Capitol, House side, near the Rotunda