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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.