Our Tour Begins

Welcome to our virtual gallery tour of “Law’s Picture Books” at the Grolier Club, which we introduced in yesterday’s post. Our gallery consists of ten cases, each of which features images that serve a particular function or goal in legal publishing.

Today we’d like to show you the first case, “Symbolizing the Law.” It features books that contain allegorical images of law. What do law’s images do? For one, they represent law’s abstract ideals—indeed, images often convey those ideals much more effectively than can words alone.

You could talk to someone all day long about how law is no respecter of persons, or about the importance of its being applied with neutrality. Or you could just show them an image of Lady Justice. Allegorical images are central to the history of law book publishing—and, in the case of Lady Justice, to its brand identity.

Viewed collectively, the images of Lady Justice in this case illustrate a number of trends. You can see her transformation from an allegorical image to a trademark, much like the barber’s striped pole. In her early incarnations, Lady Justice is often appropriated to legitimate the power of the state or the sovereign, as in the statutes of Venice and Genoa that we have on display. Later, she’s used as a polemical device in the literature of law reform and social protest, as in the pamphlet we feature calling on the governor of California to pardon the radical labor leader Tom Mooney.

There are a number of curious things to recognize about the images in this case.

For one, many of them were created on the specific instruction of the authors of the books they illustrate. They’re not just incidental decorations. They’re central to what the books are all about.

Second, as figurative images used to represent philosophical ideals, the illustrations often appear at the beginning of books, where they herald and embody the principles of the text that follows. Their meaning develops as the text of the books unfold—their figurative details take on greater symbolic weight as authors unspool their words. In this respect, they differ from the images in our other cases, as we’ll see next time.

Everyone recognizes Lady Justice, of course—which is why we’ll leave you here with a very different symbolic image of law from the exhibit:

The Greek historian Herodotus tells how Cambyses, king of Persia, had the judge Sisamnes flayed alive for accepting a bribe. He then had the judge’s skin stretched over a chair, and he appointed Sisamnes’s son to serve as his father’s successor—“enjoining him to remember in what seat he was sitting to give judgment.”

Just a little cue for the forgetful, and a word to the wise!

The story was well known in early modern Europe, and it adorns this analysis of seventeen legal cases.


Antonius Matthaeus, De judiciis disputationes septendecim. 3rd. ed. Amsterdam: Johannes Janssonius van Waesberghe, 1665. Engraving by Cornelis van Dalen. Roman-Canon Law Collection of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

Mark S. Weiner & Mike Widener

For the next stop on our tour, see here.

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