If God chose to enter the world in the form of a helpless baby in a lowly manger, why couldn’t He return and reign from a humble throne fashioned, more or less, from trash? This decidedly unusual question comes to mind when I view James Hampton’s work of art, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. In anticipation of the second coming of Christ, Hampton—a janitor—used salvaged materials to build an astonishing 180-piece collection of throne-room furnishings for his Lord. And the best part? He created it all in secret, in a rented garage over a 14-year period. The world would learn of his creation only after he died from stomach cancer in 1964.
At the heart of the work is a seven-foot-tall throne—a modest armchair that Hampton transformed into a winged silver and gold foil-covered wonder. The words “Fear Not” sit atop the seat like a crown. To accompany the centerpiece, he also created an altar, pulpits, tables, crowns, and plaques—all adorned with foil. In spite of the fact that Hampton built his life’s work from discarded items and found objects such as furniture, insulation board, wooden supports, cardboard, and broken mirrors, it looks remarkably royal.
While a student of The Throne could glean many things from Hampton’s work, one cannot help but marvel at the way it reflects the glory of God despite being made of materials most people would consider junk. In Hampton’s hands, garbage positively gleams. Rubbish intended for the landfill has been transformed and given a place of honor at the Smithsonian, one of the United States’ greatest museums.
That a janitor would have access to such materials is not surprising; that he would use them to create a staggering spiritual work of art like The Throne is something else. And yet, there exists an undeniable link between Hampton’s day job and his creative undertakings. In both positions, he was an agent of renewal. As a custodian for the General Service Administration in Washington, D.C., he restored orderliness to his workplace on a daily basis. As an artist, he found new uses for seemingly useless things, repurposing them to serve a greater vision.
He reportedly wanted to use the 180-piece collection for public ministry but died—his work most likely unfinished—before anything of the sort could materialize. Even though the artist never installed his assemblage in a church, the work undoubtedly ministers to those who behold it. That being said, what exactly does The Throne say to us who worship Hampton’s God? If we have eyes to see what this custodian of creativity built—to truly take it in—what can we learn?
We who cling to Christ may be reminded of the work God longs to do in us. We pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and we hope that “on earth” includes God’s will being done in our lives, too (Matt. 6:10). We long for our Creator to rummage through our hearts and make something wonderful out of the debris accumulated inside of us. Lord, please make something beautiful out of all this ugliness, we pray. Make all this darkness shine somehow.
Artwork has the power to open our eyes to the prospect that we’re not limited by who or what we are in the present—that we lowly caterpillars may yet become butterflies, at least if our Creator has anything to say about it. Consider the burned-out light bulbs Hampton wrapped in foil to add another decorative touch to his magnum opus. In the artist’s hands, these bulbs shine again and forever. When we feel like burnouts, don’t we hope that God will make us glow once more? That He will enable us to radiate something of His glory even though, more often than not, we feel doomed to dimness? In the loving hands of a creator—both the little-c (us) and big-C varieties (God)—anything can transcend its current state and become beautiful. James Hampton saw potential in trash. God sees it in us.
Of course, when we focus solely on the outrageousness of Hampton’s materials in crafting a work that reflects the grandeur of God, we may miss a less sensationalist reading of The Throne. Those seemingly remarkable objects—at least if we saw them listed on paper, apart from any association with this work—are completely mundane. Jelly jars, electrical cables, cardboard tubes, and desk blotters aren’t hard to find, after all.
Anything can transcend its current state and become beautiful. James Hampton saw potential in trash. God sees it in us.
When James Hampton incorporated these objects into his vision, however, the ordinary became extraordinary. Here the artist echoes the work of his Lord, who took five loaves of bread and two fish—everyday stuff, to be sure—and with them filled the bellies of 5,000 people. In the hands of Jesus, the finite becomes seemingly infinite. What would happen if we presented our ordinary lives to God in the belief that He might make something marvelous of them?
When we study the strange yet alluring work of James Hampton, maybe we should also consider the debris in our hearts that needs discarding—so we may find ourselves praying something like a janitor’s prayer: “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps. 51:10). And once You’ve tidied up the place, Lord, we might add, establish Your throne there, too.
Photos: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC / Art Resource, NY