Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Representing Justice: From Renaissance Iconography to Twenty-First-Century Courthouses1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Representing Justice: From Renaissance Iconography to Twenty-First-Century Courthouses1

Article excerpt


IN THE SUMMER OF 2003, The Economist ran a column criticizing the use by the United States of military commissions to deal with individuals detained in the wake of 9/11. As the text of the headline ("Unjust, unwise, unAmerican") on the cover of the magazine made plain, the authors objected to employing an ad hoc process instead of a regular court system to try alleged terrorists.2 But the editors hoped that readers would quickly understand that critique by looking at the visual accusation-a blindfolded woman draped in Grecian robes and holding scales and sword-viewed through the sights of a rifle. The artist turned Justice into the target rather than the goal.

Our first question is why the publishers of The Economist had the confidence to market their product internationally by relying on such a picture for the cover. They were not, after all, selling their magazine only to people familiar with this remnant of Renaissance iconography. Why did the editors assume that viewers would connect the image to justice, gone awry, rather than to warrior princesses, the Roman Empire, or operas?

Our project is (in part) to answer that question. And the response (in part) is that The Economist is not alone in appropriating the icon of Justice. One can find her everywhere, marking both places and objects as law-related. One such example (fig. 1) comes from the front of the Canadian Supreme Court in Ottawa. Travel thousands of miles to Australia to see Justices at many court buildings, including those in a Queensland court complex in Brisbane, and in Melbourne where a large metal sculpture on the side of the Victoria County Court (fig. 2) is readily seen from a busy street. Justices also sit outside in front of courts in Lusaka, Zambia, and in Brasilia, Brazil, and other Justices sit inside, at the Supreme Court of Japan and the Supreme Court building in Azerbaijan. In addition, a photograph that ran in April of 2003 in the New York Times with the caption "Saddam Hussein with the Scales of Justice" made another point: leaders from around the world drape themselves in Justice's accoutrements.3

In short, from Europe to Iraq, from North and South America to Africa, Australia, and Asia, producers of images rely on our capacity to recognize Justice. Further, and illustrated by magazine covers such as that of The Economist, Justice has other functions. In addition to adorning government buildings, she is also a stock figure in commerce, appearing on catalogues to sell books to lawyers and as jewelry. Further attesting to her ready recognizability is her incarnation in cartoons, as can be seen from a 2004 cartoon (fig. 3)4 criticizing a decision by one Supreme Court Justice to vote in a case involving a party with whom he had spent time duck-hunting.

These images have, we hope, sufficed to anchor a first point. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, we can see Justice imagery used on government buildings, in advertisements, and in jest. All of these deployments rely on the fact that we can "read" the oddly dressed woman with a set of attributes (scales, sword, and sometimes a blindfold) as representing or referring to Justice.


A. Extricating Justice from Her Companion Virtues

As those steeped in European history know, the Justice easily identified today dates from the medieval and Renaissance periods. This sixteenthcentury engraving by Cornells Matsys (fig. 4) shows one such Justice, and thousands of comparable classical images line museum and building walls.

Turn then to another engraving (fig. 5), also by Matsys, with two figures. One is, again, Justice. The other woman is looking in a mirror. Some will recognize her as Prudence, but most of the people walking into courthouses and most of the consumers buying magazines would not know who she is. Yet, in medieval and Renaissance imagery, Justice was not a solo actor but one of four Cardinal Virtues-Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice. …

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