Law as Beauty

Law book illustrations serve many practical purposes. Yet they also can be items of simple beauty. Our gallery tour closes with books in which the bridge between abstraction and the real—the two polarities at the heart of legal experience—opens onto a view of the aesthetic.

In this magic space of the imagination, law gives birth to art that stands on its own.

These books gently overflow the boundaries of law as a field of knowledge and the law book as a category of publishing. They thereby pay tribute to law and to the publishing of books as endeavors that implicate our deepest humanity.

The beauty of law book illustrations often becomes apparent especially after the illustrations have detached themselves from their original context—the legal text that they illustrated.

Take this detail from a late-eighteenth-century handbook of law for the Austrian Empire (click on all images to see the full illustrations):

The loveliness of the image belies the fact that it illustrates some grisly cases of belladonna poisoning.

Or consider this handsome fishy:

Or this detail from his companion on the facing page:

They’re from an seventeenth-century Bavarian work on agricultural law, and in essence they’re a size chart, illustrating the size at which various species of fish become lawful to catch.

Some of the images in this case pay special tribute to the way law book illustrations have depicted the individual human person—the self—in its relation to law and legal proceedings. Consider this image of French revolutionary Gracchus Babeuf from a transcendent fine press edition of his defense before the High Court of Vendôme:

Many of the images we’ve included also depict people specifically in relation to their books. Like this image of the monk and canon law scholar Paolo Attavanti—which also is the first image of an author ever to appear in a printed book (it’s the great-granddaddy of modern book jacket pictures!):

Or this image from the Constitutiones of Pope Clement V—in which he’s depicted receiving the very text in which the image appears:

Or this image of King Henry VI, from one of the most lavishly-illustrated books in the collection:

The illustration at the start of this post is from a book about sanctuary. The image allegorically represents an argument about the importance of that legal institution—and its beauty is an argument in itself.

In the text, the author, an Augustinian friar, compares the Church’s obligations to sanctuary seekers to a mother’s protection of her child. In the illustration, a female cherub seated in peaceful Nature points out the scales of Justice to her male counterpart, who holds a Roman symbol of magistrate authority (the fasces), while he cowers amidst the ruins of human civilization.

But we’ll take our leave with this final image, which we think is especially fitting for readers of Concurring Opinions:

Who could be more stylish than this lawyer, with his elegant posture, surrounded by the tools of his trade—books? In such illustrations, law is depicted as a profession at once learned and beautiful. Indeed, the learned and beautiful are shown to be one.

Thanks greatly to Deven Desai and all the editors at Concurring Opinions for giving s a chance to share “Law’s Picture Books” with you. We’re gratified to say that the exhibit has been hailed as “fascinating” by The New Yorker, “eye-opening” by the Wall Street Journal, “courageous” by the Frankfurter Allgemeine, and “exceptional” by The New Criterion—and that there are still a few more days left to see it!

The exhibit is on display at the Grolier Club in New York until November 18.


Joan L. Blasius, Nederlandts versterf-recht. Amsterdam: Voor Doornick, 1671.

Mark S. Weiner & Mike Widener


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