Search This Blog

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Prof. Georges Martyn on Law and Iconography

Dear Students,

next week classes will be held by Prof. Georges Martyn (Gent). 
The main theme around which the three lectures will be developed is law and iconography.

How are law and iconography related?

Here following you'll find some helpful introductory remarks on the law and iconography discourse (with a selection of suggested readings) - Buon lavoro!

Law and Iconography

‘Law’ and ‘image(s)’ interact in many ways. Traffic signs, for instance, are at the same time ‘rules’ and ‘images’. Legislation on the protection of minors prohibits and penalizes the exhibition of pornographic material, artists risk to be held civilly liable when offending individuals or protected minorities by laughing at them in cartoons, etc. There is actually a lot of ‘law on art’, and all of these rules can be seen as part and parcel of the vast research field of ‘law and iconography’. However, subject of the three lessons in Rome will not be ‘law on art’, but rather ‘art on law’. This theme will be studied from a historical point of view. What will be focused on, is the representation of law, justice, legislation, and other legal concepts… Three themes will be treated.

The verticality of the law: how art is used to legitimize judicial power. Looking at the ‘places of justice administration’, starting under a tree in prehistoric times, passing by the medieval church entrances (with their red painted western doors) and the Renaissance painting of divine and historical exempla iustitiae, over the ‘templar’ architecture of nineteenth century palaces of justice, to the present day transparent office buildings of our contemporary courts, there is a connecting thread: worldly men (and recently women) deciding cases over their compatriots, try to legitimize their power by stressing the ‘higher’ origin of their competence. In the early middle ages, before Christianisation, the biggest tree of the village served as a gathering place for all important questions. The tree reaching to the sky, was replaced by the church and the religious legitimating of the judges’ competence was represented by Crucifixions and Last Judgments in the late middle ages. Again, the source of power was sought ‘above’, in heaven. Even after the French and American revolutions, the palaces of justice still resembled temples of worship. Although today, legitimising representations are far more scarce, we do still use expressions like: ‘Be you ever so high, the law is always above you’ (Thomas Fuller-Lord Denning). The verticality is still present today, be it for instance in the symbol of Lady Justice’s sword, ...and even in her blindfold (blind to the temporal world, she should only listen to the voice of God, the voice of fairness and truth), but in earlier times we found it also in justice trees, pillories, belfries, etc.


·       A.L. Nettel, “The power of image and the image of power: the case of law”, Word and Image, 21, 2005, 527-539 (

·       G. Martyn, “Inspiring Images for Judges. Late Medieval Court Room Decorations in the Southern Netherlands”, in A. Kérchy, A. Kiss & G. Szönyi (eds.), The Iconology of Law and Order (Legal and Cosmic), in Papers in English & American Studies, XXI, Szeged (Hungary), Jatepress, 2012, 41-53 (

Signs, symbols, gestures and tools: legally telling details in (religious and profane) art. Lady Justice’s blindfold, sword and scales, an ‘iconographic construction’ of the Renaissance, are still understood today as symbols of justice and law. Many other symbols and signs, however, but also objects and (portrayed) gestures, in our contemporary eyes, do no longer spread the message they sent to spectators in earlier centuries. It is an interesting quest for jurists and legal historians to go and visit museums, using ‘legal (historical) spectacles’. Artistic iconography was undoubtedly influenced by law. Left and right, for instance, have an important legal meaning; the overall (religious) influence of the antithesis ‘good and bad’ was paramount; colours of cloths can tell us about the goodness or badness of the persons wearing them; a branch of a tree can tell us that the man holding it is a judicial officer; the use of a glove can refer to marriage, etc. Very few paintings or other works of art explicitly deal with law and justice as such, but quite often, juridical elements are present, be it very often as hazardous details. A classical example is the depiction of the Gospel’s scene of Jesus being brought before Pontius Pilate. Although this story is to be situated in the first century, many artists show Pilate as a medieval, early modern or modern judge. This way, we get to know the robes of the judges, their bench, their symbols... We can probably ‘trust’ these representations more – as they are just unimportant details slipping in without thinking about them – than, for instance, the many representations of torture and execution, represented in paintings, drawings and statuary of saints and martyrs. If we compare these representations to marginal drawings by court clerks, for instance, we should conclude that a lot of artistic exaggeration was used for religious purposes.


·       I. Bennett Capers, "Blind Justice", Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, 24.1, 2012, 179-189 (

·       N. Illman Meyers, "Painting the law", Cardozo arts and entertainment law journal, 14, 1996, 397-406 (

Jurists exalted and fooled: For centuries artistic creation was all about religion..., all or almost all, only the king and the higher nobility being able to command portraits. It is striking that jurists were the first non-nobles and non-religious to have their portraits painted. This tells a lot about the social positions jurists were able to rise to, being professors, councillors, judges and advocates. But pretty soon, the juridical guild was also criticised, in songs and stories, but also in pictorial art. We see them represented as vultures, foxes, wolves and monkeys. Especially their hunger for money is portrayed.

Images indeed can be used to both exalt and fool the men of law.


·       R.J. Schoeck, “The aesthetics of the law”, American Journal Juris, 28, 1983, 46-63 (

·       P. Goodrich, “Visiocracy: On the futures of the fingerpost”, Critical Inquiry, 39.3, 2013, 498-531 (

Prof. Martyn's CV:

Biography: Georges Martyn (born in Avelgem, Belgium, 1966) studied Law (1984-89) and Medieval Studies (1989-91) in Kortrijk and Leuven (Belgium) and obtained a Ph.D. degree in Law at the Catholic University of Leuven in 1996, with a dissertation on private law legislation in the early modern Netherlands. He has been an ‘advocaat’ (barrister/lawyer) between 1992 and 2008 at the bar of Kortrijk, is now honorary member of the Ghent bar, and is a substitute justice of the peace in Kortrijk since 1999. He is full professor at the University of Ghent (Department of Jurisprudence and Legal History) since 1999 and leads the Institute of Legal History ( since 2010. He teaches ‘History of Politics and Public Law’, ‘General Introduction to Belgian Law’ and ‘Legal Methodology’. His publications deal with the history of private law and legal institutions in the Netherlands in the early modern era, the reception of Roman law, the legal professions, the evolution of the sources of the law in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and legal iconography. He was appointed by royal decree a member of the Belgian Royal Commission for the Edition of the Old Law (, he is the Flemish editor-in-chief of the Belgian-Dutch legal history review Pro Memorie ( and co-editor of the series Studies in the History of Law and Justice ( Bibliography on the Ghent University website ( and


  1. In today's lesson we looked at the importance of iconography in the development and justification of the law. Until the French Revolution the power of the law , it was believed , was descended from God, and the paintings of antiquity and the Middle Ages are related to this concept ( vertical scepter symbol of power , the tree that tends to God, the coronation by the Pope to the king like the coronation of Carlo Magno ); after the French Revolution the power is no longer legitimized from above, from God , but in the " general will " expressed in the Parliament . So , I think to a famous painting by David , titled " The Coronation of Napoleon ." In this painting we see Napoleon , in the cathedral of Notre Dame, take the crown at the top, and then place it on the head of Josephine. This iconography , is the first step that breaks with the tradition of the Ancient Regime. Napoleon with his back to the Pope, marks the end of the legitimacy of power that wants the Pope to crown its King , but its almost sacred place in the context makes it clear that he is still the holder of a divine law.

    Place the link to this picture :

    Luigi Winkler

  2. Dear All,

    I would like us to go back to yesterday's class for a second. Do you remember that Prof. Martyn showed us the seven paintings in the townhall in Danzig? You certainly remember that IUSTITIA was always present, in different attitudes and positions - in the different representations and scenes (salus patriae, etc.).
    Why do you think IUSTITIA was always present and IUS wasn't? Let's discuss!

  3. As a follow up to the previous comment: what about the painting representing Gent that he showed us today? Justice was not represented through a personification, but the judges where carrying her typical "objects"...Any comments about this, also relating to the Danzig paintings?

  4. To answer the first question, we need to make an introduction . By law we mean a set of commands, called standards , which are guaranteed by the state, even by force . In my opinion , following this definition , the law is something to be strongly linked to the man and his inviolable autonomy. Justice is linked to the right , it is the foundation of the law, it is legitimacy of the law. It thus appears to be a metaphysical concept , which has foundation in nature, in morality , better yet an ideal concept in fact in ancient times, Justice represented the natural order of society , understood as a universal concept . For example , in Greek society justice was understood as the limit beyond which you sinned of " hubris " that is, the arrogance , pride , something negative. I think it is precisely for this reason that was represented only the " Justice " and not the law; because it is something natural, on a higher level of law (human), and thus better observed by all.

    Luigi Winkler

  5. E.C: with standard. I mean rule!!!!

  6. I perfectly agree with my colleague Luigi ; indeed i think that justice is a concept that born before the law itself.
    Law and justice are surely linked to each other but law derives from justice , which is the pillar, the "mother" of laws, and in this sense law has to be inspired by justice but can surely happens ,as it did ,that law doesn't really reflect justice. Therefore justice is always been represented in paintings and jus wasn't.
    We saw justice represented as one of the primary value ( always right, always fair, always impartial) and this position couldn't be take by jus, which is created by humans( so it can be unfair ,unjust, wrong).

  7. Speaking about law and justice, my personal opinion is that those two have never been the same. Obviously the goal of the jurists is to reach that situation in which law and justice are exactly the same, but history demonstrates that this couldn't be possible for now and I personally think that this goal is just an "utopia", something people will always go for, but they will never reach it at all. The reason is that law has to be interpretaded to be applied in a practical case while "justice" is a universal concept, that in most cases no needs interpratation. And that's why it's easier to get people agreement representing justice in a painting, for example, while it's difficult to get the same result representing "law".

    Marcello Ricciuti

  8. Actually, I am facing some difficulties to understand the meaning of the blog. If you have any short video film related to your blog, then I would request you to share here. It would be great help.
    Avocat handicap