13-14-15 April: Stefan Huygebaert on Law and Iconography

Dear all,

next classes will be devoted to legal iconography and the first class will deal with one of the most beloved topics of the “Law and the Humanities” course: the iconography of Lady Justice! Here a detailed description:

Legal iconography: an introduction

Stefan Huygebaert, Ghent University

Willem Jacobsz. Delff, Robert de Baudous, Maria Strick-Becq, Justice before the judgement of Zaleucus and Cambyses, ca 1600 (detail), Rijksmuseum

Willem Jacobsz. Delff, Robert de Baudous, Maria Strick-Becq, Justice before the judgement of Zaleucus and Cambyses, ca. 1600 (detail), Rijksmuseum

First class: Icon and iconoclasm of Justice

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. 


Kemp, M. (2012). Christ to coke. How image becomes icon. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Introduction)

Moore, A., & Lloyd, D. (1988). V for Vendetta: Vertigo. (specifically chapter five, pages 37-45, the first 37 pages are optional)

Second class: Inspiring images: exempla and allegories

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.


Martyn, G. (2012). Inspiring images for judges. Late medieval court room decorations in the Southern Netherlands. In A. Kérchy, G. E. Szönyi & A. Kiss (Eds.), The iconology of law and order (legal and cosmic) (pp. 37-49). Szeged: JATE Press.

Third class: Foundations: The iconography of 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 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.


Pitkin, H. F. (1987). The Idea of a Constitution. Journal of Legal Education, 37(2), 167-169.

Ackerman, B. (1991). We, the people: Foundations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (Chapter 1 & 2)

Stefan Huygebaert’s CV

Stefan Huygebaert is an Art Historian (Ghent University, 2011). Since October 2012, he is preparing a PhD thesis at Ghent University, Department of History/Institute for Legal History, titled Visual idea(l)s of Law & Justice. 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. Since October 2015, he is a Flanders Research Fund (FWO) PhD fellow. 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. He has published on legal and constitutional iconography and iconology, artistic revivalism and nineteenth-century art.

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