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Glimpse of Law Series – Installment 4: The Main Reading Room

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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 and mezzanine level of the Great Hall.  In this installment, she explores the Main Reading Room.

The Main Reading Room

We head now into the heart of the Jefferson Building– the Main Reading Room – which is situated directly in the center of the building and is one of the more decorated spaces of the Library.  The 160-foot domed ceiling draws your eyes upward, and the view can be dizzying if you try to take in everything at once.

The Symbolic Statues: Law

For this tour, our focus begins half-way up the wall, at the series of plaster statues that stand atop the marble columns.  The eight symbolic statues represent the subjects of higher learning in Western civilization.  The statue of Law is by the American sculptor Paul Wayland Bartlett, who also sculpted the statues of Columbus and Michelangelo in this space.

The statue of Law is a symbolic figure, a woman, and she carries the accoutrements or wears the symbols of her discipline.  She leans upon a stone tablet, on which the word of the Law can be written.  She holds in her left hand some sheets of paper from which dangle seals, showing that these are official decrees.  It is interesting to note that the bodice of her dress is designed exactly as that of Minerva, who we saw in the mosaic just outside the Main Reading Room gallery entrance.  The scaled armor of the bodice features the head of Medusa and is edged with intertwined serpents, endowing this symbolic statue with protective qualities over the law.

View of statue of Law by Paul W. Bartlett on the column entablature between two alcoves. Photo Source: Prints and Photographs Division

Quote by Hooker

Above the statue of Law is a plaque with gilt lettering.  It is a quote by Richard Hooker, an English theologian, taken from his work, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie.

 Of Law there can be no less acknowledged than that her voice is the harmony of the world.

Charles Eliot, then-president of Harvard University, suggested the inscriptions above all of the symbolic statues.  Eliot abbreviated Hooker’s quote to fit the 70-letter maximum per plaque.  (Not counting the period at the end, the abbreviated quote exceeds the maximum by one.)  Eliot had this to say on the subject in a letter of March 23, 1896 to Thomas Lincoln Casey, who oversaw the design and construction of the Jefferson Building:

I have found the selection of these inscriptions decidedly difficult.  It is desirable that they have a certain exalted style – commonplace or obvious remarks being unfit.  If they are a little mystical so much the better.  If they make the reader inquire of himself what they have to do with the subject, so much the better, provided that he discovers their applicability.

 The Portrait Statues: Solon and Chancellor Kent

One level below the symbolic statues we see sixteen bronze statues – two portrait statues for each discipline.  With centuries of history to draw upon, you can appreciate the difficulty of narrowing down the choice to just two figures.  That task fell to the Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Rand Spofford.

In a letter to Bernard Green, the superintendent of construction, Spofford listed the sixteen figures that should be commemorated as statues in the Main Reading Room.  To represent Law, Spofford chose Solon, the father of Athenian law, and Sir William Blackstone, the English jurist best known for his work, Commentaries on the Laws of England.

But wait.  That’s not the statue of Blackstone in the Main Reading Room.


Solon, father of Athenian law. The scroll reads, “Oi Nomoi” – “the Law” in Greek. Photo credit: Carol Highsmith, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress.


Chancellor James Kent. Kent wears a robe with an ermine collar and clutches a volume from his Commentaries on American Law. Photo credit: Carol Highsmith, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress.


Green agreed with all of Spofford’s selections – except that of Blackstone.  Instead, Green crossed out Blackstone and wrote in “Kent.”  In the Main Reading Room, then, we have the statue of Chancellor James Kent of New York.  Was the substitution one that favored American representation in the Congressional Library?  We may never know.


The letter from Spofford to Green, showing the selections of the portrait statues for Law.

Spofford also submitted inscriptions to be placed on plaques near the portrait statues.  As far as I can tell, these plaques were never created (or never installed).  Spofford selected the following quotes:

 The true law is right reason.  – Cicero

Reason is the life of the law. Coke



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