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Visual ideals of law & justice : an iconological inquiry into nineteenth-century Belgian legal art

(2019)
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Abstract
This dissertation scrutinizes public legal art in the context of nineteenth-century Belgium. More specifically, it considers how government as well as political, legal, and administrative actors generated and used art to legitimate the administration and agents of law and justice. Employing an iconological method, this dissertation interprets such works of art and their iconography as symptoms of a legal culture. Law and justice are not only ideals; they are also specific to their institutional meanings in the Belgian context. Insofar as this is the case, this dissertation addresses three central questions: 1) how did different actors relate to each other when commissioning public art and how were iconographical choices made; 2) what were these actors’ priorities in commissioning these artworks (style, general aesthetics, embellishment, completion of building, and form, or content and message); and 3) to what extent was there a national, coherent legal iconography, or visual language of law and justice? From as early as the ancien régime Belgium has had a rich legal iconographical tradition. However, scholars – art historians and culturally interested lawyers from the rising field of research Law and the Visual – have strangely failed to consider the nineteenth-century continuation. Given the particularities of the young Belgium State, as well as growing interest in nineteenth-century Belgian art and its art scene in general, this research serves to fill this research gap. This dissertation is divided in three parts, each of which considers a different, characteristic aspect of modern, post-revolutionary law as: firstly, a written, formal Constitution; secondly, consisting of a humanized and rationalized criminal legal system; and thirdly, a judiciary branch that was (physically) independent. It will be noted that these three elements also constitute popular conceptions of law and justice today. In all of these aspects, nineteenth-century Belgium played an international role, with an influential liberal Constitution, important players in the international legal criminal debate, and the largest building in the world as the capital’s Palais de Justice. The first part of this dissertation, Constitution, starts by describing and analyzing a device from nineteenth-century legal iconography, for which it introduces the neologism Decisive Constitutional Moment (DCM). This iconographic device selects a specific historical event as a pars pro toto for the Constitution. Artists represent this moment artistically by using one or more techniques, i.e. by reconstructing, recording, staging, and inventing the moment. International, especially European, examples from the opening chapter serve as a background for a case study of Belgian constitutional iconography, which appears in the two following chapters and where it is addressed in two subsequent periods (1830-1865; 1865-1914). Chapter 2 looks specifically at Belgian constitutional iconography during and following the 1848 revolutionary wave. It argues that the liberal Rogier government actively generated a constitutional cult that had to consolidate and popularize the Belgian ‘Pact’. This chapter further identifies seven iconographical emphases, shifts, or novelties, such as the depiction of the four fundamental freedoms – press, worship, association, and education – and the verticality of the constitutional monarchy. Chapter 3 scrutinizes these changes during the reigns of Leopold II and Albert I. Here we see how the great political divide and culture war between Catholics and liberals (and later, socialists) do not allow for a coherent interpretation of constitutional iconography, although both sides of the political spectrum championed the defense of the Constitution. The struggle for general suffrage and the first constitutional revision of 1893 forced commissioners and artists to forge new inventions. Part II, Criminal Law, considers the decoration of three different cours d’assises. These were courts with juries that ruled on the highest types of felonies and had the ability to issue the death penalty. Chapter 4 examines the use of local, criminal legal history in decorative designs, considering, in particular, the relationship between a sixteenth-century courtroom and the decoration (or rather, lack thereof) of the Bruges’ cour d’assises between 1835 and 1863 when the death penalty was still effected. The lack of decoration of the cour d’assises is startling considering the effort that went into decorating the adjacent, historic Aldermen’s Room of the Liberty of Bruges, which served as a deliberation room for the jury, largely for tourist purposes. Chapters 5 and 6 each scrutinize the decorative programs of two different cours d’assises, located in the new palais de justice of Antwerp (1885-1893) and Brussels (1907-1914). My research here shows that the Antwerp Catholic court president, Théophile Smekens, gathered a group of traditionalist artists and, with the help of the town archivist, presented an objectivist vision of local, criminal law on the walls of the cour d’assises. Yet, this moral weight of local criminal legal history is diametrically opposed to the subjectivist vision that was actually favored by many politicians at the time. Two decades later, the Brussels’ symbolist painter Jean Delville praised this subjectivism and the criminal legal policy of Minister Jules Lejeune in the Brabant cour d’assises by contrasting the legal past and present. Part III, Administering Justice, considers the decoration of courtrooms and palais de justices, specifically the oldest Belgian Palais (Ghent), the Supreme Court (Cour de cassation), and the largest Palais (Brussels). Each of these three cases concerns non-executed or altered decoration projects, and these chapters consider the failure to execute from an iconological point of view. Chapter 7 shows that in the eighty years following the inauguration of the Ghent Palais de Justice in 1846 practical priorities and specific financing situations resulted in the empty walls of the enormous salle des pas-perdus and empty niches in the façades. For the Cour de cassation, François Wellens, engineer of the Brussels Palais and president of the Royal Commission for Monuments (RCM), emphasized the historical legitimation of the highest court. Even after the turn of the century, a symbolist experiment was not an option for the Cour. Chapter 9 shows that the completion of the Brussels’ Palais around 1880 coincided with a wave of orders for statues for Belgian palais. Those statues either showed figures from (local) legal history or classic personifications of virtues with little variation. In the years following, three sculptors sought the commission for Jozef Poelaert’s enormous building. The iconography of Juliaan Dillens’ sculpture group Justice was apparently too deviant. Charles Van der Stappen’s enormous Themis/Minerva shared its iconography with that of Minerva – analogous to the whole Palais – but a chryselephantine execution appeared to be a bridge too far. Jacques de Lalaing’s suggestion for two statues on two prominent pedestals in front of the Palais collided with the iconographical and stylistic dependence of Poelaert’s unexecuted wishes. In all of these cases, the works of art never left their plaster design, despite the facilitating initiatives of politician and “colosse du barreau belge” Edmond Picard and his entourage of literary and artistic lawyers. For nineteenth-century artists, official commissions meant both crucial visibility and a source of income, and even though some of them had clear political preferences and ties, most of them were willing to look for a neutral, non-subversive message and design. Iconographically or thematically, the process was reactive rather than proactive: the initiative often lay with the artist, or by extension the local organizing instance, rather than the central Administration, or the controlling RCM. The latter only rarely remarked on content… and those remarks were often ignored. Under such circumstances, there were many local differences and no national legal iconography or visual language of law and justice. There are some exceptions however, in a number of (liberal) initiatives whereby the government predetermined the artwork’s shape and meaning (the column shape of the Colonne du Congrès, the electoral urn shape for a monument for the Palais de la Nation). Also, in some cases, strong figures succeeded in imposing their wills to establish clear iconographical programs within a certain context. The priority for the commissioning and funding government – via the Administration for Fine Arts – and the controlling organism – RCM – remained, above all, stylistic unity rather than iconography and content. This was true also in regard to courtroom decorations. The legal iconographical tradition of exempla justitiae, while known to a small group of art lovers, was never a point of reference of real importance. The omnipresent, classic allegorical figures and virtues are no proof of a national visual language of law and justice, but rather indicate the use of an international standard. The explanation for their common appearance is the same as for other common iconographical choices: scenes and figures from national (legal) history; references to religion by means of crucifixes; monarchy; and the (tables of the) law itself. This iconographical arsenal may have been loosely defined, in 84 years of visual legitimation of law and justice, the excess of or deviations from such reassuring symbols were nonetheless clearly noticed, criticized, or even halted. Such dismissive reactions occurred when the traditional iconography of Justitia was abandoned, when international rather than national historical figures were represented, when crucifixes were missing (or too prominent), or when the monarch did not only “crown” the Constitution but also the Palais de Justice. There are, of course, historical reasons for such criticisms. For instance, references to the constitutional monarch, Leopold I, during a general European constitutional crisis around 1848, were much more evident than during the fin-de-siècle under the waning popularity of Leopold II. Nevertheless, the classic personifications of virtues, national history, religion, monarchy, and the law itself continue to serve as reference points in the poorly-defined, consensual, and neutral imagery that facilitated the legitimation of the Constitution, criminal law, and the judiciary - which was itself, impartial and often represented as blind.
Keywords
Iconology, Iconography, Law, Justice, Nineteenth-century Art, Belgium

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Citation

Please use this url to cite or link to this publication:

Chicago
Huygebaert, Stefan. 2019. “Visual Ideals of Law & Justice : an Iconological Inquiry into Nineteenth-century Belgian Legal Art.”
APA
Huygebaert, S. (2019). Visual ideals of law & justice : an iconological inquiry into nineteenth-century Belgian legal art.
Vancouver
1.
Huygebaert S. Visual ideals of law & justice : an iconological inquiry into nineteenth-century Belgian legal art. 2019.
MLA
Huygebaert, Stefan. “Visual Ideals of Law & Justice : an Iconological Inquiry into Nineteenth-century Belgian Legal Art.” 2019 : n. pag. Print.
@phdthesis{8615983,
  abstract     = {This dissertation scrutinizes public legal art in the context of nineteenth-century Belgium. More specifically, it considers how government as well as political, legal, and administrative actors generated and used art to legitimate the administration and agents of law and justice. Employing an iconological method, this dissertation interprets such works of art and their iconography as symptoms of a legal culture. Law and justice are not only ideals; they are also specific to their institutional meanings in the Belgian context. Insofar as this is the case, this dissertation addresses three central questions: 1) how did different actors relate to each other when commissioning public art and how were iconographical choices made; 2) what were these actors{\textquoteright} priorities in commissioning these artworks (style, general aesthetics, embellishment, completion of building, and form, or content and message); and 3) to what extent was there a national, coherent legal iconography, or visual language of law and justice?
From as early as the ancien r{\'e}gime Belgium has had a rich legal iconographical tradition. However, scholars -- art historians and culturally interested lawyers from the rising field of research Law and the Visual -- have strangely failed to consider the nineteenth-century continuation. Given the particularities of the young Belgium State, as well as growing interest in nineteenth-century Belgian art and its art scene in general, this research serves to fill this research gap. This dissertation is divided in three parts, each of which considers a different, characteristic aspect of modern, post-revolutionary law as: firstly, a written, formal Constitution; secondly, consisting of a humanized and rationalized criminal legal system; and thirdly, a judiciary branch that was (physically) independent. It will be noted that these three elements also constitute popular conceptions of law and justice today. In all of these aspects, nineteenth-century Belgium played an international role, with an influential liberal Constitution, important players in the international legal criminal debate, and the largest building in the world as the capital{\textquoteright}s Palais de Justice.
The first part of this dissertation, Constitution, starts by describing and analyzing a device from nineteenth-century legal iconography, for which it introduces the neologism Decisive Constitutional Moment (DCM). This iconographic device selects a specific historical event as a pars pro toto for the Constitution. Artists represent this moment artistically by using one or more techniques, i.e. by reconstructing, recording, staging, and inventing the moment. International, especially European, examples from the opening chapter serve as a background for a case study of Belgian constitutional iconography, which appears in the two following chapters and where it is addressed in two subsequent periods (1830-1865; 1865-1914). Chapter 2 looks specifically at Belgian constitutional iconography during and following the 1848 revolutionary wave. It argues that the liberal Rogier government actively generated a constitutional cult that had to consolidate and popularize the Belgian {\textquoteleft}Pact{\textquoteright}. This chapter further identifies seven iconographical emphases, shifts, or novelties, such as the depiction of the four fundamental freedoms -- press, worship, association, and education -- and the verticality of the constitutional monarchy. Chapter 3 scrutinizes these changes during the reigns of Leopold II and Albert I. Here we see how the great political divide and culture war between Catholics and liberals (and later, socialists) do not allow for a coherent interpretation of constitutional iconography, although both sides of the political spectrum championed the defense of the Constitution. The struggle for general suffrage and the first constitutional revision of 1893 forced commissioners and artists to forge new inventions.
Part II, Criminal Law, considers the decoration of three different cours d{\textquoteright}assises. These were courts with juries that ruled on the highest types of felonies and had the ability to issue the death penalty. Chapter 4 examines the use of local, criminal legal history in decorative designs, considering, in particular, the relationship between a sixteenth-century courtroom and the decoration (or rather, lack thereof) of the Bruges{\textquoteright} cour d{\textquoteright}assises between 1835 and 1863 when the death penalty was still effected. The lack of decoration of the cour d{\textquoteright}assises is startling considering the effort that went into decorating the adjacent, historic Aldermen{\textquoteright}s Room of the Liberty of Bruges, which served as a deliberation room for the jury, largely for tourist purposes. Chapters 5 and 6 each scrutinize the decorative programs of two different cours d{\textquoteright}assises, located in the new palais de justice of Antwerp (1885-1893) and Brussels (1907-1914). My research here shows that the Antwerp Catholic court president, Th{\'e}ophile Smekens, gathered a group of traditionalist artists and, with the help of the town archivist, presented an objectivist vision of local, criminal law on the walls of the cour d{\textquoteright}assises. Yet, this moral weight of local criminal legal history is diametrically opposed to the subjectivist vision that was actually favored by many politicians at the time. Two decades later, the Brussels{\textquoteright} symbolist painter Jean Delville praised this subjectivism and the criminal legal policy of Minister Jules Lejeune in the Brabant cour d{\textquoteright}assises by contrasting the legal past and present.
Part III, Administering Justice, considers the decoration of courtrooms and palais de justices, specifically the oldest Belgian Palais (Ghent), the Supreme Court (Cour de cassation), and the largest Palais (Brussels). Each of these three cases concerns non-executed or altered decoration projects, and these chapters consider the failure to execute from an iconological point of view. Chapter 7 shows that in the eighty years following the inauguration of the Ghent Palais de Justice in 1846 practical priorities and specific financing situations resulted in the empty walls of the enormous salle des pas-perdus and empty niches in the fa\c{c}ades. For the Cour de cassation, Fran\c{c}ois Wellens, engineer of the Brussels Palais and president of the Royal Commission for Monuments (RCM), emphasized the historical legitimation of the highest court. Even after the turn of the century, a symbolist experiment was not an option for the Cour. Chapter 9 shows that the completion of the Brussels{\textquoteright} Palais around 1880 coincided with a wave of orders for statues for Belgian palais. Those statues either showed figures from (local) legal history or classic personifications of virtues with little variation. In the years following, three sculptors sought the commission for Jozef Poelaert{\textquoteright}s enormous building. The iconography of Juliaan Dillens{\textquoteright} sculpture group Justice was apparently too deviant. Charles Van der Stappen{\textquoteright}s enormous Themis/Minerva shared its iconography with that of Minerva -- analogous to the whole Palais -- but a chryselephantine execution appeared to be a bridge too far. Jacques de Lalaing{\textquoteright}s suggestion for two statues on two prominent pedestals in front of the Palais collided with the iconographical and stylistic dependence of Poelaert{\textquoteright}s unexecuted wishes. In all of these cases, the works of art never left their plaster design, despite the facilitating initiatives of politician and {\textquotedblleft}colosse du barreau belge{\textquotedblright} Edmond Picard and his entourage of literary and artistic lawyers.
For nineteenth-century artists, official commissions meant both crucial visibility and a source of income, and even though some of them had clear political preferences and ties, most of them were willing to look for a neutral, non-subversive message and design. Iconographically or thematically, the process was reactive rather than proactive: the initiative often lay with the artist, or by extension the local organizing instance, rather than the central Administration, or the controlling RCM. The latter only rarely remarked on content{\textellipsis} and those remarks were often ignored. Under such circumstances, there were many local differences and no national legal iconography or visual language of law and justice. There are some exceptions however, in a number of (liberal) initiatives whereby the government predetermined the artwork{\textquoteright}s shape and meaning (the column shape of the Colonne du Congr{\`e}s, the electoral urn shape for a monument for the Palais de la Nation). Also, in some cases, strong figures succeeded in imposing their wills to establish clear iconographical programs within a certain context.
The priority for the commissioning and funding government -- via the Administration for Fine Arts -- and the controlling organism -- RCM -- remained, above all, stylistic unity rather than iconography and content. This was true also in regard to courtroom decorations. The legal iconographical tradition of exempla justitiae, while known to a small group of art lovers, was never a point of reference of real importance. 
The omnipresent, classic allegorical figures and virtues are no proof of a national visual language of law and justice, but rather indicate the use of an international standard. The explanation for their common appearance is the same as for other common iconographical choices: scenes and figures from national (legal) history; references to religion by means of crucifixes; monarchy; and the (tables of the) law itself. This iconographical arsenal may have been loosely defined, in 84 years of visual legitimation of law and justice, the excess of or deviations from such reassuring symbols were nonetheless clearly noticed, criticized, or even halted. Such dismissive reactions occurred when the traditional iconography of Justitia was abandoned, when international rather than national historical figures were represented, when crucifixes were missing (or too prominent), or when the monarch did not only {\textquotedblleft}crown{\textquotedblright} the Constitution but also the Palais de Justice. There are, of course, historical reasons for such criticisms. For instance, references to the constitutional monarch, Leopold I, during a general European constitutional crisis around 1848, were much more evident than during the fin-de-si{\`e}cle under the waning popularity of Leopold II. Nevertheless, the classic personifications of virtues, national history, religion, monarchy, and the law itself continue to serve as reference points in the poorly-defined, consensual, and neutral imagery that facilitated the legitimation of the Constitution, criminal law, and the judiciary - which was itself, impartial and often represented as blind.},
  author       = {Huygebaert, Stefan},
  language     = {eng},
  pages        = {651},
  school       = {Ghent University},
  title        = {Visual ideals of law \& justice : an iconological inquiry into nineteenth-century Belgian legal art},
  year         = {2019},
}