“Died at Washington, the seat of government, 25 June 1841,” reads part of his epitaph. I should think that even in 1841 one wouldn’t have needed to specify that Washington was the “seat of government.” But otiose overdetermination is not why I look at this obelisk (figure 1).
Macomb (1782-1841: figure 2) had a distinguished career. Fêted as the “Hero of Plattsburg” for a lopsided victory in the War of 1812, he was named head of the Army, a post he held until he died and was succeeded by Winfield Scott.
The obelisk immediately stands out for its riffs on the Greek revival, the Roman models favored by the early republic, and other symbolism on the stone. Unfortunately, the inscription on the marble, in particular, has been practically effaced by time. However, it seems bronze plaques have been affixed preserving the inscriptions on the various faces of the plinth. The rest of the decoration must have been much more striking when it was crisp.
The obelisk, then. It is supported by a molded tray-like base which itself is supported by (are you ready for this) lion’s paws, four of them, practically touching one another because they are so close. Lions’ paws are common as dirt as legs to support objects, and go back to antiquity, but I’ve never seen any as closely spaced as here—it seems daringly out of proportion.
As we rise, we see a stylized image of a Roman gladius, or perhaps a fancier version of the U.S. model 1832 Artillery sword (figure 4) then in use by the U.S. army. The sword is stylized to show the federal eagle’s head on the pommel.
You can see the scaling of the pommel of the real sword reproduced notionally in the feathers of the sculpted sword. However, I believe that the sword is a piece of military symbolism being put to double duty as a sort of disguised symbolic cross. Attached to the sword by a fillet is a branch of oak, the symbol of Jovian accomplishment. The sword hangs by its belt from the top of the obelisk.
Above the belt is a U.S. flag which has been draped over the tip of the obelisk and hangs down approximately a quarter of its length. One can see the stars on the right side of figure 3. Above that is the most astonishing part of the entire monument, a riff on a Greek ‘Corinthian’ helmet of the classical age (figure 5).
The ensemble: flag, helm, short sword, eagle, laurel and oak is repeated on the 1898 Coat of Arms of the U.S. Military Academy (figure 6). It’s not clear to me whether Macomb’s monument is an original pulling together of these elements which got picked up later, or the sculptor received a ready ensemble. In the coat of arms, as on the obelisk, the helmet has a crest puffing above it. Fittingly carrying through the republican imagery on the monument, an eagle bears the crest.
On the front of the plinth is a laurel crown fashioned from two laurel twigs joined by a fillet, a symbol of victory (figure 7).
The monument thus combines classical symbols appropriate to the democracy of the American republic, and does so within a military context. But there is one final treat on the plinth, on the north-facing side (figure 8). I said that I thought that the sword on the front of the obelisk was a veiled cross. On the north face of the plinth are two symbols, the common enough butterfly, symbolizing new life, and the ouroboros, a decidedly pre-Christian symbol, the snake that eats its tail, symbolizing the cycle of death to life. The idea is infinity.
Both symbols are unsurprisingly being put to Christian use here but it is interesting to find someone learned enough and confident enough to use an ouroboros. What I mean is that, for example, not infrequently one will find people who go whole hog for a non-Christian-themed monument but then sort of spoil it by “taking the curse off” it: placing obvert Christian imagery on it lest we misapprenend them as (say) crypto-Egyptian polytheists.
Figure 9 offers an excellent example of what I have in mind: the Egyptian Revival column of the founders of Creighton University in Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Omaha, NE. There is some busy-ness with a bespangled, anchor-bearing angel up on top (she’s nicely rendered, if a commonplace), but see how they’ve nervously carved a cross into the shaft of the column—just in case.