Visual idea(l)s of Law & Justice

Stefan Huygebaert

Today, the average citizen's closest encounter with law and justice happens through visual media such as cinema, television and the internet. Likewise, nineteenth-century citizens received their ideas about law and justice via the press, but public art had a role to play as well. Starting from the premise that the political and legal elite generates symbols which constitute the mass public's idea of politics, law and justice, this PhD research analyses the imagery resulting from this visual communication. It scrutinizes official legal imagery and public art from the nineteenth century, a crucial formative period of Belgian law. The focus lies on Belgian state-sponsored public art (either commissioned or bought at the official level), which functioned to legitimise a constructed ideal (justice) and demonstrated a means to reach it (law and the legal system), communicating those ideas from the top down to a mass public. Three main parts constitute the structure of the research. First, the focus lies on the Belgian 1831 Constitution (renowned as being the most liberal in Europe at the time) and the iconography of fundamental laws and freedoms. The second part deals with the iconography of criminal law in a period of changing attitudes and policies towards criminality and new codifications of criminal law. The third part focuses on visualisations of justice, mainly in the decoration of the Brussels Palais de Justice, known at the time of its construction as both a monument for law and justice and the world’s biggest building.

The intention and use of such official legal imagery needs to be situated within a legal culture. Likewise, scrutinising the way artists dealt with iconographic and artistic challenges and conventions when communicating an official legal message can reveal a number of things: the particularity of the process of commission and design; the amount of freedom for artists to choose their subjects, style, and means; and the contradictory use of allegory in the age of realism.


This project was part of the Minerva Research Group The Nomos of Images. Manifestation and Iconology of Law.


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