In His Garage, an Untrained Artist Created a Work of Sublime Divinity

How deep faith created one of the loveliest—and most curious—sacred objects in the Smithsonian collections

a mixed media sculptor
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, James Hampton's strange and transporting magnum opus.   
  Chris Gunn

For some 14 years he labored in solitude. Lovingly. Obsessively. Every night after work, in a rented garage on 7th Street NW in Washington, D.C., James Hampton, a World War II veteran and janitor for the General Services Administration with no artistic training, methodically built what he came to call The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. Hampton prepared the throne to receive Jesus, flanked by a dozen angels, at the time of the Second Coming.

a man in a suite stands in garage stands next to his sculptor
Hampton with his creation in the Washington, D.C. garage where he worked in the 1950s and early 1960s. Unknown photographer / Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

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This article is a selection from the April/May 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Born in 1909 to a South Carolina preacher, Hampton, who may have lived with schizophrenia, had his first religious vision at the age of 22—a visitation from the patriarch Moses. He later said Adam and the Virgin Mary had come to him as well. Why he began the Throne in 1950, no one can say. Passion. Devotion. Divine inspiration. But it came to comprise a handmade masterpiece of 180 or so separate components, each crafted from found and scavenged parts. Hampton embellished discarded furniture and light bulbs, tin cans and jelly jars with gold and silver foils and wrapping paper—materials reflecting light and inspiring something like awe at the prospect of an apocalyptic end to this world and the peace and glory to come in the next. Leslie Umberger, a curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, describes the part of the sculpture on display as the “central section of a spiritually driven, pulpit-style array” that Hampton created “as a sacred space for sharing his faith.” The “third heaven” is a reference to God’s home, an exalted heaven-within-a-heaven; the Throne, Hampton is reported to have said, “is my life. I’ll finish it before I die.”

A detail from the side of the throne devoted to the New Testament.
A detail from the side of the throne devoted to the New Testament. The inscription recounts the artist's vision of seeing the Virgin Mary and the Star of Bethlehem shining above Washington, D.C. Chris Gunn

Hampton’s materials were an inventory of junked 1950s office supplies: inks and desk blotters, construction paper and sheets of transparent plastic. The chairs and altars and offering tables are made of what he carted home from used furniture sellers, often cut in two. Each half of the assembly is beautifully symmetrical with the other. It is a miracle of craft and art and carpentry, of architecture and engineering, ingenuity and loneliness and holy madness. With a million featherlight hammer taps, Hampton built batches of trim molding and sawtooth decoration. Wings upon wings upon wings. Above the throne, Hampton placed these words of reassurance from Revelation 1:17: “Fear not.”

One of Hampton’s handwritten tags on a component subtitled “Virgin Mary”.
One of Hampton’s handwritten tags on a component subtitled “Virgin Mary”. Chris Gunn

The Throne’s story has since hardened into legend. Hampton died of cancer at a Veterans’ Administration hospital in 1964. The work was unfinished. But then his landlord, Myer Wertlieb, came to the garage to collect the overdue rent, not knowing Hampton had died. Instead, he found the Throne. For months, Wertlieb searched without much success to find someone, anyone, who might want it. Then Harry Lowe got involved.

“It was like opening Tut’s tomb,” Lowe, head of exhibitions and design at what was then the National Collection of Fine Arts, told the Washington Post about entering that garage for the first time. Lowe paid the landlord Hampton’s back rent and arranged the purchase of the entire assembly for the museum. A selection from the center section was first exhibited in 1971. The illustrious art critic Robert Hughes wrote in Time magazine that the Throne “may well be the finest work of visionary religious art produced by an American.” Just as often, though, critics marginalized it as “outsider” art.

Now, a new generation of curators and conservators have been working on the Throne, and their cozy laboratory at the museum, filled with magnifiers, sable brushes and purple nitrile gloves, was open to the public late last year. There, you could talk to conservation fellow Katya Zinsli and collections management intern Eliza Macdonald as they cataloged, cleaned, examined, scanned, restored, recorded and photographed every piece of the Throne.

a fellow at the museum, dusts a part of the assemblage labeled “Ten Commandments.”
Katya Zinsli, a conservation fellow at the museum, dusts a part of the assemblage labeled “ELiJAH.” Chris Gunn

“It is always such a nice surprise to find Hampton’s fingerprints,” Zinsli says. “I have found at least one on almost every object in the collection, in nearly every medium. I’ve found it as smudged ink on paper; paint transfer on plastic; and the oils from his fingers forever etched into the aluminum foil. It is an ever-present reminder of his hand.”

The Throne is not only an act of electrifying veneration; it is also a time machine, an escape pod, an expression of postwar nuclear paranoia. The Throne may be as much a reflection of post-atomic American anxiety as any work of art by Jackson Pollock or John Cage.     

a women  removes dust from a part of an assemblage for preservation
Eliza Macdonald, an intern at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, removes dust from a part of the assemblage labeled "Ten Commandments." Macdonald is part of a team that's cataloging every portion of Hampton's creation, while also doing conservation work to keep the throne sparkling—and sturdy. Chris Gunn

On display beside the Throne in the laboratory was the notebook Hampton kept, called The Book of the 7 Dispensation, containing page after page of cryptic symbols, strokes and slashes, numbered by chapter like the Bible but largely indecipherable: At the bottom of most pages, the word REVELATiON is inked in Hampton’s jittery block printing. Flipping through the book is like reading in tongues. Inside, Hampton refers to himself as ST JAMES.

In one of the few known photos of Hampton, he stands before the Throne, a slender man of perfect seriousness, purely awkward in a suit and tie, wearing a marvelous cardboard crown covered in metallic foil. You read too much into it: self-denial, self-mortification, beatific martyrdom and the sacrifice of ecstatic madness—the state of every saint. How little we really know of this man, the mystery of whom somehow makes his art, this heaven beyond heaven, all the greater.

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