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Rising with "Dr. Bob"

Seeing "Apocalypse" through the artist's eyes
Posted March 11, 2016

Rising recently spoke with acclaimed Baltimore muralist Robert "Dr. Bob" Hieronimus, PhD, and he shared many thoughts about his favorite parts of the "Apocalypse" mural. Below, learn more about this must-see attraction on the university's Homewood campus in the artist's own words.

Take a virtual tour of "Apocalypse"

The Corporate Eagle

The eagle is the focus of the central wall of the entire mural. This wall was the original commission, and the message is that the great promise of American civilization is dying. The democratic republic envisioned by our founding fathers and mothers has been displaced by a corporate oligarchy.

I chose the eagle to represent the United States because it is one of America's most common symbols. Look closely inside the body of this American eagle, however, and you'll see that the "right wing" is cracked and the body is made up of the names of some of the worst offenders of the corporate state. Corporations claim to be citizens of the republic, but they want only the benefits of citizenship, not the responsibility. They do not have to abide by the laws as citizens do, and when corporations commit crimes, they immediately stop talking about citizenship and instead become "artificial legal entities."

We must remember, it's not the corporations committing the crimes, it's the employees and management making these decisions. Three of the brand names whose crimes were so offensive they earned a credit line in "Apocalypse" for contributing to the death of the American eagle are Chiquita (at the original painting, known as United Fruit Company), General Electric, and Exxon (at the original painting, known as Esso).

The Statue of Liberty, or the Whore of Babylon?

The cracked "right wing" of the American eagle is swallowing a distressed Statue of Liberty, which is on fire and sinking under a flood of water. This is some obvious symbolism I used in 1968 to say that our cherished liberties that we identify as part of "being an American" are being eroded. But there is a new focused attack on the Statue of Liberty, with critics going so far as to call her the Whore of Babylon. Fundamentalist preachers, like John Benefiel quoted here, have said things like: "That is a demonic idol right there in New York harbor. ...We don't get liberty from a false goddess, folks. We get our liberty from Jesus Christ, and that Statue of Liberty in no way glorifies Jesus Christ. ...we practice idolatry in America in ways we don't even recognize."

Because these claims seem so extremist, and almost silly, to the American media, the underreporting on this growing movement means we have ignored this fundamentalist mindset at our peril. Rather than vilify the Statue of Liberty because she is a goddess, Americans need to embrace her. The American civilization would not be in decline if we could operate from a sense of partnership instead of domination, as demonstrated by the goddess-worshiping cultures of which the Statue of Liberty is today's best-known descendent. (For more on the symbolism of the statue, look for the forthcoming book, "The Secret Life of Lady Liberty: Goddess of the New World," which I co-authored with Laura E. Cortner.)

The Black Man/People of Color

Witnessing the demise of the Statue of Liberty is a dark outline of a human figure with an outstretched arm reaching for the torch. The most obvious interpretation of this figure is a black man, or an African American, who is trying to save the torch of enlightenment held by Lady Liberty. Today, rather than a black man, I would call this a person of color, in an attempt to encompass all non-white groups experiencing racism in common.

Rather than the old patriarchy currently in control, it is these suppressed classes of women, the working poor, African Americans, and Native Americans who will rise up to save the liberties that we hold dear in the pursuit of happiness for the whole of humanity. Before it was too late, I was trying to wake us up to the fact that the America that we all thought we knew, the nation we were proud to be a part of as responsible for the democratic republic center of self-government, was no longer free. The virtuous and enlightened citizen counted on as the driving force for a successful nation by our founding fathers and mothers has been transformed into a mindless consumer feeding the economy as if it is a monster that must be fed for us to feel successful.

UFOs

I included two types of UFOs in the "Apocalypse" mural and repeated them in several places as a symbol for the higher consciousness available to us from cosmic sources. While it's still true that any politician who dares to state anything favorable about UFO research risks losing their credibility or office, it's no longer possible to dismiss the phenomena with the claim that they are only witnessed by farmers in the middle of nowhere. Leslie Kean's 2011 book, called "UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go On the Record," has a foreword written by John Podesta, a chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and a counselor to President Barack Obama. Another book, "Unidentified: The UFO Phenomenon: How World Governments Have Conspired to Conceal Humanity's Biggest Secret," is written by Robert Salas. The 1964 U.S. Air Force Academy graduate witnessed a UFO incident that included the deactivation of nuclear missiles under his control while serving at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. Despite this, America's corporate oligarchy prefers to stick its head in the sand and try to retain the illusion of complete control.

See UFOs above the arched entrance to the main room at the top of the stairwell; in a V formation by the Aquarius corner; in the rear of the main room, between the Scorpio corner and the moon; and in the fireplace section that frames the Sphinx and the Pyramids at Giza (pictured here, above the back of the Sphinx).

Cyclic History

The main theme of "Apocalypse" is that history is not linear but cyclical. We are not at the pinnacle of human accomplishment, getting better and better all the time. The truth is that the civilizations rise and fall, and ours is not the first advanced civilization on this planet. An influential book for me during the original design of the Apocalypse was by a former MIT professor of the history of science, Giorgio de Santillana, called "Hamlet's Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time." It documents more than 200 myths from 30 ancient cultures that the authors linked to astronomical phenomena. Specifically, the book claims these myths were passing along an ancient knowledge about the precession of the Equinox, a phenomena that occurs every 25,920 years. The stairwell portion of the mural starts with the legendary civilization of Lemuria in the Pacific region, and then turns to the civilization of Atlantis in the Atlantic region, leading the viewer into the main room and the flowering of the Egyptian and Judeo-Christian civilizations. Turning the corner, we end up back on the main wall with the dying eagle from the prophecy as I've seen it in my dreams about the American civilization.

Fixed Signs

The astrological theme I used in "Apocalypse" is the repeated use of the four fixed signs of the Zodiac: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius. They are called fixed signs because their role in the Zodiac is to preserve tradition. Taurus is an earth element that focuses on the accumulation of materials and possessions, and is oriented to the here and now. Leo is a fire element, highly artistic and powerfully expressive. Scorpio is a water element, and its role strengthens the feelings and emotions, making them permanent.

Aquarius is an air element focused on objectivity, communication, and permanent, lifetime friendships. I repeated motifs of these fixed signs in five areas of the mural to lend stability to the ever-changing elements depicted throughout "Apocalypse." I wanted to stabilize and preserve the idea that, even with the coming changes, the outcome will be positive, such as a rebirth of the democratic republic!

See the fixed signs in the stairwell, over the head of the Sphinx; the Atlantis temple on the landing between the staircases; in each corner of the main room (two of these, Scorpio, right, and Aquarius, left, are pictured); the fireplace section that frames the Sphinx and the Pyramids at Giza; and the alcove to the right of the fireplace.

We the People

By dedicating this mural "to people," I'm calling all to assume the mantle of responsibility as "Earth People." Thomas Jefferson famously put it in 1787 that "God forbid we should be another 20 years without such a rebellion. ... what country can preserve its liberties, if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?" In other words: Freedom isn't free. Without the constant participation of the citizens, those in power will be corrupted by the highest paying special interests. In today's jargon, "We the People" are the 99 percent. The message of the "Apocalypse" is that Jefferson was right: We need a revolution to return the power to the people. If the wealth gap between the one percent corporate powers and the rest of us is not challenged and righted, then a greater and more destructive revolution will be the consequence.

An "Apocalypse" Playlist

The mural was originally designed during the late 1960s, an era of student activism unlike any other, and Hopkins students were right there on the front lines bringing about changes in civil rights and peace activism. I can still hear the music that was playing while I painted away, like "Time Has Come Today" by The Chambers Brothers and "People Got to Be Free" by The Rascals. "White Room" by Cream always takes me right back to those days, as I transformed a formerly white room into one full of meaning. Here are a few others I remember listening to:

  • "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" by The Fifth Dimension
  • "Hair" by The Cowsills
  • "Touch Me" by The Doors
  • "Atlantis" by Donovan
  • "Something" by The Beatles
  • "Sunshine of Your Love" by Cream
  • "A Beautiful Morning" by The Rascals
  • "Light My Fire" by Jose Feliciano
  • "Summertime Blues" by Blue Cheer
  • "Hurdy Gurdy Man" by Donovan
  • "(You Keep Me) Hangin' On" by Vanilla Fudge
  • "Revolution" by The Beatles
  • "Piece of My Heart" by Big Brother and the Holding Company

Want to learn even more about "Apocalypse" and its restoration? Check out this newsletter Dr. Bob provided for his fans and social media followers.