Book Review: “The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted” (2017)

Stefan Huygebaert et al (eds.), The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted (Tielt: Lannoo, 2016), 205pp. ISBN9789401440417 RRP £20.

This lavishly illustrated book is related to a recent exhibition at the Groeningemuseum in Brugge, Belgium. The aim of the exhibition was to give an overview of how justice and the workings of the law have been depicted in European high art between the medieval and early modern periods. To this end, the Groeningemuseum displayed paintings from its own collection, such as the fifteenth-century work by Gerard David, Het Oordeel van Cambyses (“The Judgement of Cambyses”), as well as rare manuscripts, books, and artefacts. The exhibition was then supplemented by an academic conference on the theme of law and justice in art which is currently a neglected area of scholarship.[i]

The introduction by Georges Martyn is highly informative, prefacing the ensuing case studies by raising several interesting points about the reason why art and architecture is highly important to the operation of the law:

Throughout history, law and justice have been surrounded by an aura of sacredness. To judge is to exercise power […] in the 19th– and 20th-century courts of law, architecture played a vital role in legitimising authority. With their richly decorated rooms and the impressive robes of the togati, these ‘Temples of Themis’ inspired awe […] Art depicting law and justice helped to legitimise the power of the courts.[ii]

It was recognised at the time that artistic depictions of the law helped to shore up the power of the ruling elites. This is why, after all, many of the paintings displayed at the exhibition were often commissioned by Magistrates and other public officials, and it had become common practice to exhibit these paintings within official buildings.[iii]

The book is divided into a series of case studies by various authors, each of which analyses a particular painting or object and discusses it in its historical context. One interesting essay in the collection is Vanessa Pauman’s discussion of the afore-mentioned Het Oordeel van Cambyses. This painting was commissioned by the Magistrates of Bruges but was not intended to awe offenders with a sense of the power and glory of the workings of the law. Rather, as Paumen points out, it was a moral message for the judges who passed sentences. The painting tells the story of a judge who served the King of Persia. The judge, Cambyses, had been accepting bribes from offenders and thus ‘had tainted his noble profession’.[iv] As punishment, the King ordered Cambyses to be flayed alive, and had his skin to decorate the judges’ chair as a permanent reminder of the sacredness of their profession.

judgment-of-cambyses
The Judgement of Cambyses. Oil on Canvas. Groeninngemuseum.

Additionally, in the medieval and early modern periods, the idea of earthly justice was intertwined with that of divine justice. Societies in those ages were, of course, more religious. While the Last Judgement features heavily in a lot of art, Georges Martyn also picks examines other lesser-known Biblical episodes which featured in a visual representations of justice. For example, Francis Floris I’s The Judgement of Solomon (1547) was exhibited in Antwerp City Hall in order to provide public officials with an example of the difficulties of trying to judge a case when it is a matter of one person’s word against another. Works such as Het Oordeel van Cambyses and The Judgement of Solomon remind us that the representation of justice is not always about aweing commoners into submission.

Other highlights include Jos Monballyu’s discussion of paintings depicting the Flemish jurist, Joos de Damhauder (1507-1581). The man was a ‘celebrity’ public official: the author of a highly influential law treatise entitled Practycke Criminele (1570), and appeared in numerous contemporary prints. Another highlight in the collection of essays is Stefan Huygebaert’s discussion of the uses of the sword in images of justice. The reason that recognisable figures in the iconography of the law carry a sword, we are told, is because such images draw upon images of Christ from the book of revelation. The sword carried by images of Lady Justice symbolises not only a willingness to judge (as Christ does at the Last Judgement), but also a willingness to protect the weak and vulnerable.

The book focuses heavily on paintings and prints, but one thing that could have enhanced this work is if it had discussed more artefacts. Huygebaert and Kristel Van Audenaeren co-author a chapter on a fifteenth century silver sculpture shaped like a fist and called, perhaps unsurprisingly, The Fist of Justice (there appear to be no public domain images of this and therefore I cannot show it). Such pieces were known as ‘penalty pieces’, imposed upon wealthy offenders who had committed violent acts and exhibited in the courtroom for future offenders to see. This was a person’s way of ‘giving something back to society’, so to speak. In spite of the highly interesting history of this and similar objects given by Huygebaert and Audenaeren, however, the subsequent chapters revert to discussing paintings.

floris-last-judgement
Frans Floris, The Judgement of Solomon. Oil on Canvas. Antwerp: Museum von Schone Kunsten.

Although this is an academic book, at twenty pounds it is relatively affordable when compared to the standard monograph price of approximately seventy pounds. The subject matter will render it useful to both researchers and students interested in the visual representation of the law, a sub-discipline of art, crime and legal history that is gaining ground. Moreover, its highly visual content will, furthermore, render the book popular with general readers interested in legal and crime history.


Notes

[i] In Britain, Plymouth University recently held a conference with a similar theme entitled ‘A Time of Judgement: The Operation and Representation of Judgement in 19th Century Cultures’ at which I gave a paper, although the focus at this conference was literature rather than art and material culture.

[ii] Georges Martyn, ‘Divine Judgement, Worldly Justice’ in The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted ed. by Stefan Huygebaert et al (Tielt: Lannoo, 2016), pp.15-28 (p.15).

[iii] Vannessa Pauman, ‘The Skin of the Judge: The Judgment of Cambyses’ in The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted ed. by Stefan Huygebaert et al (Tielt: Lannoo, 2016), pp.81-91 (p.91).

[iv] Ibid.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted” (2017)

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