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Glimpse of Law Series – Installment 3: The Great Hall Mezzanine

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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. She has previously written on the mosaic vaults and paintings in the East Corridor.  In this installment, Donna covers the allusions to law on the mezzanine level of the Great Hall.

A quick trip up either of the grand staircases (or, quicker, by way of elevator) takes us to the mezzanine level of the Great Hall.  Instead of a wall or ceiling dedicated to the profession, law appears in smatterings around the second floor.

Virtue of Justice

Great Hall, second floor, north corridor. Pompeiian panel depicting Justice, by George W. Maynard. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Surrounding the mezzanine windows are tall and narrow panels painted with a deep red background.  This collection of paintings appears on each of the walls and is known collectively as the Pompeiian panels, named for the style of art discovered in the ruins at Pompeii.

George Willoughby Maynard painted the series to represent the Virtues, and, being constrained to eight spaces, he chose from the cardinal virtues (which can be traced to Greek philosophy) – Fortitude, Justice, Courage, Temperance, and Prudence – and added Patriotism, Industry, and Concord (which most likely reflected virtues of Maynard’s contemporary America).

We find the virtue of Justice at the northeast corner of the floor.  She wields an unsheathed sword, representing the dreadfulness of her sentence.  In her left hand, she holds a globe, showing her entire jurisdiction.

Gilt Inscriptions

Great Hall quotations on the gilt wall tablets along the west side. BOOKS WILL SPEAK PLAIN WHEN COUNSELLORS BLANCH by Francis Bacon,  Essays “Of Counsel.” Photo by Donna Sokol

Just above the rectangular windows and encircling the entire mezzanine are 29 quotations in gilt lettering.  The Librarian of Congress at the time of the building’s construction, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, chose the quotations from various scholarly and literary works, and each relates to the themes of books or knowledge.  None of the inscriptions is attributed, which leads me to believe that Spofford expected learned visitors to know the origin of the quotes.  If you weren’t so learned, well, at least you were in a library and could look them up in a book (or Ask a Librarian)!

Lawyers get their own special quotation, attributed to Sir Francis Bacon:

Books will speak plain when counsellors blanch.

Visitors often look quizzically at the inscriptions because, where they would expect to see the letter “u,” they see “v.”  In keeping with the Italian Renaissance style of the building, the artists and decorators used the classical Latin alphabet, which contained only 23 letters and did not contain the letter “u.”  You can see this convention in the word “counsellors” in the above quote and in the title plaque for the panel of Justice.

Second Floor, East Corridor. Mosaic of Minerva by Elihu Vedder within central arched panel leading to the Visitor’s Gallery.  Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The word “law” appears only once on the second floor.  It is on the scroll held by Minerva, the goddess of knowledge, who stands guard at the entrance of the Main Reading Room overlook.  The mosaic of Minerva is the work of Elihu Vedder, whose series of paintings on Government we saw downstairs near the entrance to the Main Reading Room.

Minerva (or Athena, in Greek mythology) held other offices as a goddess, but we know her in the Library primarily as the goddess of wisdom.  We can see the accoutrements of her other duty as goddess of War – the spear, shield, and helmet – either pointing into or resting on the ground, signifying that it is currently peacetime.  Her mascot, the owl of wisdom, perches close to Minerva’s feet.  The statuette is that of Victoria (or Nike, in Greek mythology), goddess of victory, and she holds palm leaves and a laurel wreath.

On the scroll, between Victoria’s wing and the laurel wreath, is the word “law.”  The scroll lists 22 subjects of learning and includes, to name a few, agriculture, mechanics, statistics, and botany.  The last three subjects listed are not subjects at all but committees of Congress: Army Navy, Finance, Dept. of War.   Just a reminder that this is the Library of Congress and that Congress is our foremost patron!

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