Stefan Huygebaert on “An introduction to legal iconography”

David Bruto

Jacques-Louis David, ‘The execution of Brutus’s sons’ (sketch), ca. 1785, New York, Morgan Library & Museum, Thaw Collection. 

An introduction to legal iconography

  1. Justice as an icon

The first class of this introduction to legal iconography deals with what might be one of the best known personifications in Western art and/or iconographic history. Justice, Justitia, Lady Justice,… the often blindfolded lady with balance & sword is omnipresent in today’s world of law, and its courthouses, law books, law faculty buildings, newspaper websites and even the bodies of (ex-)convicts. Because of her ubiquitous nature, she became an icon – or as an icon, she became ubiquitous. In this class, we will discuss how this omnipresence came to be, by looking at the origins of both the figure of Justice and her attributes, by interpreting their iconography as symptoms of an underlying legal culture, and by analysing both the general icon of Justice as well as a specific case of Pomeroy’s Justice on the Old Bailey in London.

Readings: Kemp, Martin. 2012. Christ to coke. How image becomes icon. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Introduction (pp. 1-10)

  1. Exempla Iustitae

Since the late middle ages, artists have been asked to depict certain scenes and stories on the walls of courthouses in western Europe, located in Town Halls, Palazzi Comunali, Rathäuser,… Their function, as can be read in an early-fifteenth century description of a local customary law, was to inspire the judges in their task of judging. Originally rhetoric devises, these exempla iustitiae became important examples of good (or bad) judgement, also known as Gerechtigheidsbilder. In this second class, we will look at the history of these exempla, starting with the Last Judgement as the key biblical exemplum. After having discussed the iconographic specificities of several of the most important stories, drawn from diverse sources such as the bible, antique myths, history and legends, we will finish by questioning the function of an exemplum in the modern world by means of a late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century case study.

  1. Visualising the constitution

Much like the notions of ‘law’ and  ‘justice’, a constitution is an abstract thing, and therefore not easily visualised. From the French revolution onwards, however, a certain iconography was used to make the fundamental law visible. This last class first focuses on this ‘revolutionary’ iconography and its somewhat surprising sources. Next, we will look into the a specific part of constitutional iconography, in which artists where commissioned to visualise, in different media, the key moments from constitutional history, often as a means to legitimise that constitution. Drawing on the notions of ‘the constitutional moment’ and ‘the decisive moment’, coined by, respectively, constitutional law scholar Bruce Ackerman, and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, we will thus analyse what the notion of “the decisive constitutional moment” might be.

Readings: Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel 1987. The Idea of a Constitution. Journal of Legal Education 37 (2):167-169.

Stefan Huygebaert’s CV:

Stefan Huygebaert studied History (UGent, 2006-2007), Art History (UGent, 2007-2011) and Specific Education Degree in History, Art & Music (KULeuven, 2011-2012). He was an intern at the Mu.Zee museum in Oostende, Belgium, during the 2010 James Ensor exhibition Bij Ensor op bezoek. As an art historian, he graduated with a master thesis on neogothicism in nineteenth century painting of the Academy of Brugge.
Since October 2012, he is preparing a PhD thesis at Ghent University, Department of History/Institute for Legal History, titled Art, society & law. An iconological study of continuity & change in Belgian legal iconography, 1787-1914. (Supervisors Prof. Dirk Heirbaut, Prof. Georges Martyn and Prof. Bruno De Wever). This PhD research questions both the national character as well as the continuity and change of the visual language of law & justice in the Southern low countries and Belgium during the long nineteenth century. It is framed within and funded by the Belspo IAP Justice and populations. The Belgian experience in international perspective, 1795-2015. In 2014-2015, Stefan was a pre-doctoral fellow at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, within the Minerva Research Group The Nomos of Images. Manifestation and Iconology of Law, led by Carolin Behrmann. He has published on legal and constitutional iconography and iconology, artistic revivalism and nineteenth-century art.

One thought on “Stefan Huygebaert on “An introduction to legal iconography”

  1. giulio says:

    Brutus’s sons had attempted to overthrow the government and restore the monarchy, so the father ordered their death to maintain the republic. Thus, Brutus was the heroic defender of the republic, at the cost of his own family. In the roman law the father had absolute power on his sons. We can see the difference of colors used; brute sitting as a judge and painted with shades of hydrochloric much stronger and traced and overrides everything else drawn so much faded.


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