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Prudence, Parrots and an Odd Emperor: An Example of Legal Engraving

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This is a guest post by Hilary Ott, the Deanna Marcum Fellow for the summer of 2013.  Hilary has spent the past five weeks working in the Law Library examining engravings in 17th and 18th century law books from northern Europe.

An anonymous engraved portrait of Willem van Alphen, secretary of the court of Holland from 1631-1684.

Part of my project at the Law Library this summer has been to identify books in the collection that contain interesting engravings and to compile metadata about my findings.  This means recording the artist, the images and the editions in which the same or similar engravings appear.  One title that I particularly enjoyed researching was a Dutch work entitled Papegay by a seventeenth century author Willem van Alphen (1608-1691).  The word papegay is originally from Old French meaning popinjay or parrot.  Willem van Alphen’s book is a form book, a tool used by lawyers to assist in drafting various kinds of legal documents.  It contains models of legal language and templates for pleadings or motions to be filed in court.  The title is a playful reference to the function of the book.  The reader is meant to parrot the forms that the book provides.  The book itself parrots common usage among lawyers.  Willem van Alphen was the secretary of the court of Holland for over fifty years, from 1631-1684.  The book he wrote was based on the unparalleled knowledge of actual court practice that he gained in that position.

The book’s full title is Papegay ofte Formulier-boeck van alderhande requeste, mandamenten, conclusien &c. ghelijck die ghebruyckt ende gepractiseert werden voor de respective hoven van iustitie en Hollandte.  It was a very popular work.  It went to print seven times between its first edition (1642) and its last printing (1740 which was the third impression of the 1712 Utrecht edition).

This or a similar engraving was included in volume one of the first three editions of Alphen’s work.

When I discovered this title in the Law Library’s Rare Book Collection, I was immediately struck by the different illustrations that were used for different editions of the work.  After some research I discovered that volume 1 in every edition was accompanied by an engraved frontispiece, but that at some point the original engraving was replaced by a new one.  The original engraving was shared by at least the first three editions of the work.  The new engraving appears in all imprints of the book beginning in 1682.

To the left is an image of the frontispiece that accompanied the first three editions.  The image in the engraving was created by the well known artist Adriaen Pietersz van de Venne (1589-1662).  The engraving itself was done by Crispin van Queboren (b. 1604).

Some of the prominent features of the image are especially evocative.  One example is a portrait of the Roman Emperor Justinian I suspended above the center of the vignette by a troupe of cherubs.  Around the portrait one can read this inscription: “DN IUSTINIUS PP AUG” (Dominus Justinianus Perpetuus Augustus) which means “Lord Justinian, Eternal Augustus.”  Justinian holds in one hand winged Victory standing on the conquered globe – showing Justinian’s jurisdiction over the whole world.  Victory holds in one hand a wreath and the other a palm branch.  Justinian’s legacy was organizing and rewriting Roman law into what is colloquially called the Corpus Juris Civilis which eventually became the basis for all of modern European law.  Papegay is a work of Roman-Dutch law – the blend of Roman law and Dutch customary law that came into existence in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Justinian’s influence in the modern Dutch legal scene is illustrated here (not very subtly) by his placement at the top and center of the engraving surrounded by themes of immortality.

In the foreground of the vignette are two female figures.  The one on the right is the personification of Justice. She holds balanced scales in her left hand and a sword in her right hand.  The figure on the left personifies Prudence with a mirror in one hand and a book in the other.  A snake winding down her arm suggests the rod of Asclepius.  The two figures stand at the foot of two columns which form the gateway into a city that can be seen in the background.  Their placement suggests that Justice and Prudence are the foundation of the city.  Meanwhile, Justinian stands literally above the abstract notions of justice and prudence as the actual lawgiver.  Note that Justice and Prudence are made equal in this composition.  Justice is the most important virtue associated with the administration of the law, so why is Prudence put on equal terms with her?  Prudence may be emphasized here as a hint that the administrators of Justice ought to have the prudence to use a writing aid such as Papegay.

This or a similar engraving was included in all imprints of Alphen’s work from 1682 onward.

To the left is the frontispiece that engraver D. Philip created for later editions of Papegay.  It reiterates some of the elements found in the engraving that accompanied earlier editions.  For example, a very similar portrait of Justinian appears in the center of the engraving.  In this image, however, Justinian is not surrounded by a coterie of cherubs.  He is smaller, and his title has been shortened.  There are no suggestions of his immortality.  Along these lines, he is also no longer situated at the top of the engraving.  A female figure representing the personification of Justice sits at the top of the frame.  In a way, abstract justice can be seen to supplant the concrete reality of Justinian law.

A unique (and charming) feature of this engraving are the parrots which appear on either sides of Justinian and at the foot of the architectural setting.  The two parrots that flank Justinian each hold bundles containing law books, scrolls with seals, and sacks.  The titles that are visible on the books refer to classic guides to the practice of 17th Century Dutch Law, including Synopsis Praxeos Civilis of Paul Merula, 1646. (The Law Library has in its Rare Book Collection a 1631 edition of the work that contains an engraved landscape of the Hague which can be seen below.)  In a direct way, the engraving visually conveys the content of the book.  But in a playful way it also depicts parrots as the figures who uphold the literature of the law.  The purpose of a form-book after all is to parrot information.  At the same time, the scene of birds perched on an architectural setting surmounted by a sculpture suggests pigeons on a public square – a gentle diminishing of the stature of the people who practice the law.

An engraving of the cityscape of the Hague found on the title page of Merula’s “Synopsis Praxeos Civilis” (1631).


  1. Excellent job, once again, Nathan! How often do we get to use that “rod of Asclepius” anyhow??

    Keep up the excellent work!

    A.Elia, Columbia University

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