art, justice, law

law and Justice in art, through art, as art



Always interested in justice and law and how both travel in art, as art and through art. And then I came across The Art of Law  a book depicting three centuries of justice!

I’m no expert in looking at art let alone the art of law and justice whether through an historical or contemporary lens.  My interest comes from the fact that I’m primarily a criminal defence lawyer and routinely deal with law, justice and injustice in various forms and functions.

How has justice been depicted in the past? What examples of justice (exempla iustitiae) are in art? How have justice paintings functioned in the past?

‘The Art of Law’ takes an historical approach in looking at certain pieces from the 15th to 17th century and is associated with the Exhibition ‘The Art of Law. Three Centuries of Justice Depicted’ at the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, Belgium.

Essentially, the book is about:

20 top pieces from the collection of the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, combined with more than 80 exquisite works from collections around the world, this book sheds new light on the depiction of justice from the 15th to the 17th century. This book provides an historical approach that will appeal to both the expert and the art lover. The inclusion of famous pieces, such as ‘The Judgment of Cambyses’ by Gerard David and ‘The Last Judgment’ by Pieter Pourbus and Jan Provoost, make this book an homage to art as well as to the practices of law in society.

The need for Exempla Justitiae (Examples of Justice):

In the fifteenth century, it was customary to decorate courtrooms with works of art that were intended to ‘encourage’ the aldermen and judges to perform their duties in an honest and conscientious manner. These works often depicted the supreme moment of divine justice: the Last Judgement. But other scenes from the Bible were also used, as were images from more profane sources. Together, these are known as the exempla iustitiae (‘examples of fair justice’).


One of the main themes of the 2016 fall exhibition, The Art of Law: Three Centuries of Justice Depicted at the Groeningemuseum is the function of exempla iustitiae paintings, focuses on one specific masterpiece: Gerard David’s The Judgement of Cambyses.

This large, two-paneled painting for the city hall of Bruges, is now in the collection of the Groeningemuseum. David finished this diptych in 1498, at the height of his career, having been commissioned to paint it by the aldermen of Bruges for their council chamber. The painting depicts the legendary tale of the Persian king Cambyses (6th century B.C.), first chronicled by the Greek historian Herodotus, and later disseminated throughout Flanders through various medieval versions of the text based on the Latin works of Valerius Maximus. Sisamnes, one of the supreme judges of the king, allowed himself to be bribed and therefore did not judge fairly. The king sentenced him to a terrible punishment: to be flayed alive. His skin was then used to cover the judge’s chair of his successor and son, Otanes.


For more detail about ‘The Art of Law’, check out this review by Stephen Basdeo from his ever insightful blog Here Begynneth A Lytell Geste of Robin Hood…

If only I could get to The Art of Law Conferences that began in January 2017. Ugh! To experience the original and interdisciplinary scholarship that questions the role of art in the practice of law, jurisprudence and justice administration, to consider past artistic representations of justice and injustice . . . . sigh ….