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Glimpse of Law Series – Installment 2: The East Corridor Paintings

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The following is a guest post by Donna Sokol, Special Assistant to the Law Librarian of Congress.  Donna will be your virtual docent for a series of posts related to themes of law in the art and architecture of the Library of Congress Jefferson Building. In the first installment of this series, she focused on the mosaic vaults  in the East Corridor of the Thomas Jefferson Building.  In this installment, Donna explores the paintings in the East Corridor.

We have just strolled under the Law mosaic and are approaching the doors of the Main Reading Room (these doors are locked to the public except twice a year during Open House). The series of 5 lunettes – a semi-circular wall or painting inside an arch – that surrounds this small vestibule is entitled Government and represents how the presence or absence of the rule of law can affect the state.

The American artist, Elihu Vedder, created all of his art in Rome, where he was living at the time and where he spent most of his career.  You can see in his signature “Roma 1896.”  Vedder painted the series on canvasses to be shipped to America and installed in the Library.  Imagine how perfect the dimensions had to be!

Vedder’s Government is the only art in the Jefferson Building that addresses contemporary issues of his time.  Still fresh in the public’s mind were the Panic of 1893, Great Railroad Strike of 1894, Standard Oil Trust monopoly, and Coxey’s Army.  Vedder used classical symbolism in the paintings to transform the modern dilemmas into timeless scenes, in keeping with the style of the artwork throughout the rest of the building.  He drew upon Caesar Ripa’s 1603 book, Iconologia, using Ripa’s figure of “Public Good” as a model for the central figure in the Government panel.

In my walking tour, I spend quite a bit of time geeking out on the symbolism of these paintings, but in the space I have here in this post, I will mention just the symbols that relate to the role or effects of law.

Government by Elihu Vedder. Center panel, above Main Reading Room doors. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs DivisionSource:

In the panel for Government, the figure on the left holds the sword of justice and protection – two functions of the law.  The rein wrapped around the sword signifies the control that Government applies to the law.  The figure on the right holds a bridle symbolizing restraint and order – two other functions of the law.  The words of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address are etched onto the plaque that the central figure holds.

Corrupt Legislation mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In Corrupt Legislation, the seated figure holds half a scale – a symbol that the balance of justice is missing.  The corrupt person places a bag of coins on the scale’s only pan, implying that money can sway the law.  An open book lies on the corrupt person’s lap, and on the fore-edge of the book are the words, “The Law.”  The corrupt person can twist the law to serve his own means.

Anarchy mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The law book shows up again in the Anarchy panel. It is the larger tome at the foot of the central figure.  During times of anarchy, the law is cast aside, along with the arts (lyre), learning (the scroll), and religion (the smaller book).  The figure of Violence on the right is removing a cornerstone from an edifice.  I interpret this as the weakening of legal institutions, though it could be interpreted as any institution.

Good Legislation mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

On the Good Administration panel, it is the seated figure that holds the law book open for all to read.  She also holds a complete and balanced scale whose pans are empty of bribes.  The balanced scales appear again on the shield that she holds.

Peace and Prosperity mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Curiously enough, the symbols of law – the book, scales, sword, or bridle – are absent from the Peace and Prosperity panel.  (True, there is a machete on the right, but that looks more like a tool of agriculture than a symbol.)  The panel instead shows the fruits of the rule of law: a flourishing of the arts and agriculture.

Comments (7)

  1. I enjoyed reading this post tremendously!

  2. I think that “the law” “is a guidepost of the order” which the human produced.
    “Selfish person” “person according to the person saying anything”
    The law corrects a bad person and protects a deceived person
    It is a system not to be able to produce in other animals.
    This fresco expresses it.

  3. Outstanding. What a treasure.

  4. I would like to sincerely thank you from deepest bottom of my heart to whoever involved working hard at Library of Congress. I went to there to celebrate my son’s 2nd birthday, January 9th, 2012. As a father I’d like to give him the priceless gift, his time with his mother and father at this world’s largest library. He likes us to read book days and nights. It reminds me of Mr. President Thomas Jefferson’s quote,” I can not live without books” (1815). At this alcoves near the elevatord where you will find the five lunette paintings by Elihu Vedder depicting Government. The ideal one is over the door with the effects of good and bad government on each side. On the left symbolizes the bad one. The paintings shows Corrupt Legislation and Anarchy. On the right side symbolizes the good one which shows the good administration, Peace and Prosperity. I spent a while to make more research as soon as I got home. It really inspires me as a Teacher and owner of Silat martial arts school to teach my son and the rest of my students the right thing to do in leadership and their daily life tobe success in their nearest future. As a martial artist and person, it is one of our beliefs that with faith and morality we will be strong, without them we will be weak.

  5. I always liked Vedder’s works but I never knew about these. He was such a good draftsman with an appreciation of sophisticated color and depth. I was amused when I realized that his symbol of corruption was a woman half-dressed — it’s funny that woman today (2013) dress like this on a regular basis.

  6. The “Corrupt Legislation” mural; the central seated figure is not just holding “half a scale”, on the left side of the scale we can see hanging the head of Mercury, the God of Commerce.

    Perfect picture in todays corrupted world where global bankers and global corporations (organised crime) abuse the “corruptible bureaucratic law system”, acting like a cancer, ruining the “Heaven on Earth” our world could be.

    Thank you for sharing these pieces of modern and yet timeless art, to enjoy and to learn from.

    Currently I’m reading Plato’s “Republic”, if only we’d have proper education we would not have to make the same mistakes with corruption and corruptible systems over and over.

  7. Last year, I came to see these up close as I’m studying symbology of gender in founding American art and monuments, for personal interests in intercontinental history. I was amazed to see how many other statues in Washington over and over, show men and women in partnership, often with women cradling dying soldiers or in central roles such as these relating to government, law and the provisions of basic needs to children. These murals show the woman as the provider and also the canary in the coal mine. Interesting to see the way she leans towards the corrupt rich man and away from a child holding out her hand, dressed in rags. Then in the good legislation, the background is prosperous and this allows the two youths to have their focus on art, tradesmanship, music, study etc instead of grappling in poverty to survive.

    It’s surely no coincidence that the Statue of Liberty is a woman with shackles broken at her feet and the light of illumination, instead of a man imo, nor that the masons had a hand in putting that truth at the gateway to where freedom of thought and speech which was intended to he a place that would allow everyone to be safe and free to prosper as in this mural.

    I wonder if they put these messages into these monuments because they knew books and spoken word of this message could more easily be repressed and eventually forgotten. It’s easy to forget what drove our ancestors here amongst the founding families. It was not wealth. It was safety that made most flee England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales back then, since they fled the terror of religious influence combined with the power of the military. People may not know or think it’s important but the first congress was 95% made up of the children and grandchildren who fled religious and military combined tyranny, a tyranny that would make the Taliban look soft. A tyranny which divided everyone from peace and prosperity, that divided men from women, and divide families from communities and people from their hides – literally.

    That is why the first 10 amendments were all lessons learned from the families who remembered the rights fought for in the UK, to overthrow the oppression of corrupt rule, and the terror inflicted on those who would not submit – causing those who could, to flee to the new world where justice was intended to be the core foundation.

    Of course, there is no new world to run to now.

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