Finding God in garbage: The visionary religious art of James Hampton
When we think of religious art, we typically conjure up images from the Renaissance—awe-inspiring basilicas with figures almost leaping out of the ceilings, colorful stained glass windows, icons with halos of silver and gold. And while we might imagine Michelangelo painstakingly mixing the perfect colors when we think of art inspired by God, we probably don’t picture a solitary man meticulously sifting through trash.
But this is how the outsider artist James Hampton created what is known today as “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ General Assembly.” Art critic Robert Hughes wrote that “it may well be the finest work of visionary religious art produced by an American.”
James Hampton created a visionary work of art out of the detritus of everyday life—and no one knew about it until he died.
An outsider artist is just what it sounds like, someone whose finger is far from the pulse of the art world. They have no formal training, many times living in solitude and working menial jobs, and they dedicate a majority of their lives to working on their art. It is unfortunately very common for them to go unnoticed until their death, if at all.
Like many other outsider artists, the story of James Hampton and his “Throne” starts at his death. It was 1964 in Washington, D.C., and a landlord was tasked with emptying a carriage house Hampton had been renting from him for the last 14 years. The landlord had no idea what was being stored there, but Hampton had once told him, “That’s my life. I’ll finish it before I die.”
When the landlord opened the large wooden door, he was taken aback by what he saw. The space was filled with approximately 180 pieces consisting of altars, pulpits, crowns, plaques and a seven-foot-tall winged throne, all silver and gold reflecting the light of the bare light bulbs. Closer inspection revealed it was not precious metals catching the light but aluminum foil.
The landlord knew this was someone’s life’s work. “You can’t just destroy something a man devoted himself to for 14 years,” he told a reporter. He reached out to Hampton’s sister, but she had no interest in it. So he decided to reach out to the art world. The acting director of the Smithsonian, Harry Lowe, said the first time he visited Hampton’s work space “it was like opening Tut’s tomb,” and “they didn’t know what it was, or what to call it, but they knew it was something special.”
A Reclusive Life
James Hampton lived such a reclusive life that we know very little about him. The son of a traveling Baptist minister, he was born in Elloree, S.C., in 1909. At the age of 19, he moved with his older brother to Washington, D.C. At the age of 22 he began to have religious visions, perhaps the result of schizophrenia. “This is true,” Hampton wrote of his first vision, “that the great Moses, the giver of the 10th commandment, appeared in Washington, D.C., April 11, 1931.” It was clear to Hampton that these visions were giving him a task, not as an artist but as a prophet. In 1942, he was drafted into the army. He served in a segregated unit that repaired airstrips. Critics believe he constructed his first piece while stationed in Guam in 1945, a small one-by-two-foot altar. That year, he was honorably discharged and returned to Washington, where he found work as a night janitor.
He continued to have visions: “It is true that on October 2, 1946, the great Virgin Mary and the Star of Bethlehem appeared over the nation’s capital,” he wrote. Hampton spent decades working on the “Throne,” giving himself the title “Director of Special Projects for the State of Eternity.” Hampton would work evenings, getting off close to midnight, then would go directly to the carriage house to work on his art piece late into the night. He created it using the only material he had readily available to him, essentially trash and discarded items that he found throughout his workday and during his walks around the city.
Like many other outsider artists, the story of James Hampton and his “Throne” starts at his death.
Some outsider artists use trash as a medium to make a statement about how wasteful or disposable our society is. This was not, as far we know, Hampton’s intention; he appears to have chosen this medium out of necessity. Being a man of humble means, he had to use whatever he could get his hands on: things like cardboard, burned-out light bulbs, wheels taken off broken office furniture, foil from cigarette packs and candy. Some things he did purchase for the “Throne”: a secondhand table and dresser, construction paper and a lot of aluminum foil. Almost every part of the work is covered in foil.
Although Hampton’s creation is often referred to as simply the “Throne,” it has approximately 180 components. They include 10 crowns, 15 to 20 plaques, winged stands, an altar table, a plaque holder that has been described as “looking suspiciously like a tissue box” and cardboard tags that document his visions throughout the years. He kept a chalkboard for notes. Written on it, among other things, was “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly” and the phrase “where there is no vision the people perish.”
Perhaps the most mysterious piece is The Book of the 7 Dispensation by St. James, a 150-page book handwritten by Hampton in an indecipherable language now known in art circles as Hamptonese. Linguists and historians have tried to decode it for decades, to no avail. Some believe it is a code, variations of Gullah or African, or the written equivalent of speaking in tongues. Despite continued attempts to crack it, it has remained impenetrable.
Hampton, as far as society was concerned, was powerless, yet he spent decades of his life creating a monument to something bigger and more powerful than humanity.
Hampton’s “Throne” represents three parts of the Bible. The left side represents the Old Testament, the right side the New Testament. The sides mirror each other; each piece has a corresponding one on the opposite side. In the center is the throne itself, representing the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. Hampton built it as a bench for Christ to judge us from during the second coming. Although I do not believe it was his intention, it seems oddly fitting and profound for Jesus to judge us while seated on the trash we have polluted the earth with. Even though the Book of Revelation and the second coming are easily the most terrifying part of the Bible, Hampton reassures us with two familiar words hovering above the throne: “FEAR NOT.”
Hampton’s work was a perfect counterbalance for his time and place. He was an African American janitor living in Washington, D.C., during the peak of the civil rights movement. Washington is at its core a monument created by white men to celebrate the power held by white men. And they achieve this by using building materials that can stand the test of time. Hampton, as far as society was concerned, was powerless, yet he spent decades of his life creating a monument to something bigger and more powerful than humanity. And he did this using a temporary material. In fact, the “Throne” is so delicate that it has to be repaired almost every time it is loaned out. It is poetic that he used such a disposable material, considering the throne’s intended purpose. The Book of Revelation tells us that we live in a temporary world, a world made for ending.
Why does this matter? What do the visions (some would say delusions) of a janitor who died almost 60 years ago have to do with any of us today? I have found that James Hampton has taught and inspired me a lot since I stumbled upon his story one day on YouTube during the Covid-19 lockdown. Maybe the lesson of his life is that you don’t need power or wealth or education to create something great; that you don’t need people’s approval to do what you love. It seems to me that Hampton is a true reflection of the Jesuit motto “for the greater glory of God”: He dedicated decades to living his life this way.
Hampton teaches us an easier lesson, too, a lesson about not always taking things at face value. Maybe the people and things we find dull or ordinary or beneath us can have a much greater value than we ever thought. Hampton teaches us to find God in all things around us, even in the things we toss aside.
“The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly” is housed in the Galleries for Folk and Self-Taught Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The galleries are temporarily closed but are scheduled to reopen to the public in early 2023.