What was James Hampton of Elloree, S.C., thinking?

We'll never know. But it was big, whatever it was. You can get an idea of just how big if you hustle down to the National Museum of American Art (Eighth and G streets NW) and take in the most enigmatic work of art in Washington, "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millenium General Assembly."

The splendid, bizarre, lavish, extravagant, hallowed, glorious, shimmering, triumphant piece of art that Hampton left to the world fills an entire room.

Here is the story: James Hampton (1909-1964) grew up in South Carolina and later lived in Washington, working as a janitor for the General Services Administration. To all appearances, he led a quiet and unremarkable life. But after his death, the art world found something astonishing: For years--nobody really knows how long--Hampton had been spending his evenings building a glittering, almost Byzantine altar in a garage he rented near Seventh and N streets NW.

During his lifetime he had shown it to only three or four people. But now, nationally known artists were summoned to see the single piece of art created by this unassuming man from silver and gold-colored aluminum foil, tacks, nails, straight pins, used furniture, old light bulbs and purple construction paper. (The purple has long since faded to brown, but the museum's curators have had the room's walls painted purple to try to reflect some of the dramatic color of the original.)

The design--180 objects in all--includes a throne, an altar, pulpits and offertory tables. Those who have studied it believe that Hampton may have intended it to be used in some kind of storefront ministry. Hampton was raised a Baptist, but in later life apparently had little use for conventional religion. He often referred to himself as "Saint James" and may have seen himself as some sort of prophet.

The objects to the viewer's left are linked to the New Testament and the right half to the Old. Hampton apparently wrote extensively about his religious beliefs in a small government-issue notebook, but the cryptic script he used has never been deciphered and is presumed to be a secret language of some sort. But perhaps the boldest message of "The Throne" is in English: "FEAR NOT."

Robert Hughes, the preeminent art critic, wrote in 1976 that "The Throne" "may be the finest work of visionary religious art produced by an American."

If passion and obsession can be made into an object, this is what it looks like. But remember, The End Is Near--or, at least, an intermission. If you don't go soak in the "Throne's" powerful vibes before the end of the year, you may have to wait awhile: The museum is scheduled to close for renovation beginning in the new, um, millennium.

--John Pancake, Alexandria

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