Lady Justice And Her Scales: An Appropriated Icon

Justice. It’s a term that is difficult to represent visually. In fact, few will claim they can envision what “perfect justice” would look like. But humankind’s idealism can be made apparent through works of art. Enter Lady Justice, a depiction of justice so iconic, it is recognized around the globe in numerous settings, all striving to show fairness and integrity. But how did the image of Lady Justice and her scales become so iconic? I argue that Lady Justice’s popularity increased to the status of an icon as a result of increased liberalism and democratization, her universal visual rhetoric as opposed to an exclusive written one, and her ability to be reproduced – even subverted – in various mediums to create different meanings.

As scholar Paolo Magaudda argues in his work Apple’s iconicity: Digital society, consumer culture and the iconic power of technology, iconic power is built up through multiple different layers. Similarly, Lady Justice’s iconicity stems in part from her various historical appropriations, each adding a layer to her depiction today. A testament to Lady Justice’s iconicity is her portrayal in various religions and cultures. The Lady Justice we know today was first conjured in Egypt, as the Egyptian goddess Maat, one who represented harmony and order. In Egyptian hieroglyphics she is depicted as weighing a human heart against a feather on a scale to determine a soul’s fate, whether it merited to move on to the afterlife.

In essence, Maat and the afterlife were representations of justice before increased liberalization and democratization. Before the concept of courts – and especially trials by jury – ustice was not a virtue humans had to deal with; it could only be something the gods would carry out. Justice before Greek democracy was a virtue earned in everyday actions, but only played out and received in the passage to the world to come. The Greeks and subsequently the Romans expanded on the Egyptian idea of justice, using Maat and transforming her into their own goddesses, Themis and Justitia, respectively. The Greeks, founders of democracy and trials by juries, were the first to push justice into being an everyday quality, an attribute that needed to be considered even in the most mundane of human activities. The Greeks therefore required a goddess of justice who would wield tremendous influence. They depicted justice – Themis – as the aunt, wife, and counsel to Zeus, showing how the trait is required in decisions that have implications on the current world. The Romans took justice a step further and made it one of their human cardinal virtues, the only virtue with a signature look. The Romans used Maat, dressed her in Roman clothing and appropriated the use of the figure balancing the scales of justice.

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Since her first conjuring in Egypt several millennia ago, Lady Justice’s appearance has transformed dramatically. The Greeks and Roman gave their goddess a sword, showing how justice would need to be enforced physically through acts of force and that justice would sometimes require punishments by sword. Lady Justice holds her sword lower than the scales, representing the idea that evidence and due process must always be conducted before punishment. It was not until the late 16th century that Lady Justice began to be depicted with a blindfold, an article she is well known for today. Interestingly enough, the first time Lady Justice was depicted with a blindfold was a parody: it was meant to illustrate a perversion of justice, a dysfunctional justice system, one that was full of deception. In modern times, the blindfold is kept to signify objectivity, the idea that justice is – or should be – administered without regard to the parties’ identities, power, or social class; justice should instead be determined by the merits of the arguments presented. The first known representation of a non-parodied blindfolded Lady Justice is Hans Gieng’s 1543 statue of the Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen (Fountain of Justice) in Berne, Switzerland.

In addition to Lady Justice’s appropriation in several cultures, her iconicity stems from her display through several mediums. Starting out on papyrus paper, then being transferred to marble statues, paintings, and now the reduction to the scales desk item, Lady Justice’s unique ability to be depicted in multiple forms has most definitely contributed to her fame. Thanks to Lady Justice’s universal recognition, artists have had the creative liberty to change their representations of the figure to signify different messages or appeal to different groups of people. For example, the Lady Justice statue beside the courthouse in the U.S. Virgin Islands was designed by Jan Mitchell, who received funding from the contemporary federal art program “Art-in-Architecture.” Mitchell consciously created what the U.S. General Services Administration calls a “modern-day version of Themis” shown “as a local resident of St. Croix,” a goddess who holds her “traditional scales” but is dressed in “unconventional attire,” showing and underscoring the “civil responsibility that every citizen has in maintaining a democratic society.” Mitchell’s work, using the symbol of Lady Justice and making small but significant changes to her appearance, shows the clear iconicity of the figure. Mitchell’s art is still recognized as Lady Justice, but her altered clothing and face give off additional meaning and importance to the specific community where the sculpture is located.

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In contrast to the U.S. Virgin Islands Lady Justice statue, the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, DC has three different representations of Lady Justice, all of which depict a Caucasian woman. Outside of the United States, Lady Justice is the subject of several sculptures, paintings, and currencies in countries including Brazil, Japan, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Canada and England. The subject appears dramatically different in each location and in each depiction. There is no doubt that her universal recognition, coupled with her versatility further aids to her iconicity. One particular example of Lady Justice’s ability to be modified is the painting “Gerechtigkeit als nackte Frau mit Schwert and Waage,” a German painting whose title translates to “Justice as a Naked Woman with Sword and Scales;” It was painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1537. While the painting clearly does not depict Maat, Justitia, or the Lady Justice of the Virgin Islands, the subject is still recognizable as a Lady Justice. As Martin Kemp argues in his work From Christ To Coke, a visual icon is one that has“achieved wholly exceptional levels of widespread recognizably and has come to carry a rich series of varied associations for very large numbers of people across time and cultures, such that it has to a greater or lesser degree transgressed the parameters of its initial making, function, context and meaning” (Kemp, Introduction, P.3). Based on Lady Justice’s different representations, she certainly has achieved this status.

Each of Lady Justice’s core visual components is an ideal justice would look like. Remove one of these elements, and her entire message is subverted. This delicate balance of what must exist for Lady Justice to represent perfect justice makes it easy to alter her appearance to make a significant political message. This is why newspapers have so often used Lady Justice in comics, editorializing a point without having to use any words. One popular surge of using Lady Justice in newspaper comics came after the #MeToo movement’s mainstream surge and powerful men becoming the subject of intense public scrutiny. Particularly during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, newspapers depicted Lady Justice being assaulted by the government. Lady Justice is also often the subject of articles and comics editorializing and advocating against many policies of the Donald Trump Administration. There is no clearer marker of a visual icon than one that can be changed to subvert its original message. When third parties use an already-existing famous image to give off new meaning, iconicity has undoubtedly been established. As Kemp argues, an icon’s popularity is cemented by its reproducibility, parody, and alternations to modify its original message. This is exactly what has happened with Lady Justice over the years.

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There are two visual elements that have remained constant since Lady Justice’s inception in Egypt: her feminine figure and the scales she holds. The first element marks an important reality in depictions of virtues in human form. Like Lady Liberty and Columbia, Lady Justice, representing another core virtue of modern democracy, is depicted as a woman. Since the beginning of humanity and the founding of the still-existent patriarchy, women have been seen as objects to be admired and cherished, preserved and kept safe from violation. While judges are often depicted as men, the core virtue and function of their being – justice – is always feminine. Indeed, atop the Old Bailey courthouse in London, a sculpture of Lady Justice leaves off her blindfold, and the brochures at site explain the reason for this: the blindfold is redundant because the sculptures’ “maidenly form” is supposed to guarantee her impartiality.

The second aspect of Lady Justice, the scales she holds, has survived the test of time and has therefore become iconic. The novel idea of depicting justice as a balance test between good and evil, the need to hear both sides of an argument before rendering a decision, is a universally accepted standard in democratic systems today. This is why the balanced scales have for so long been the most iconic aspect of Lady Justice. In fact, the scales have become so iconic that they have branched out to become their own icon, separate from their possessor. Certainly what tells a lawyer’s desk apart from the many other executive desks is the presence of these scales.

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Every democratic country will purport to value and fight to keep in place a blind justice system, one that delicately balances the merits of the arguments made and renders decisions impartially. While there is no perfect justice, as there are no absolutes in ethics, Lady Justice is the closest visual representation of fairness and objectivity that exists. Thanks to Lady Justice’s appropriation through millennia of history in various cultures and religions, the increased democratization of the civilized world – affirming the necessity of justice– and the core visual elements of her rhetoric, she has most definitely reached the level of iconicity.

Works Cited

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Maat.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia

Britannica, Inc., 22 June 2017, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Maat-Egyptian-goddess.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Themis.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia

Britannica, Inc., 7 Feb. 2018, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Themis-Greek-goddess.

Campbell, Andrea. “Justitia: The Origins & History of the Symbol of Law.” Bright Hub

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justitia-the-symbol-of-law/.

“Introduction.” Christ to COKE: How Image Becomes Icon, by Martin Kemp, Oxford University

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Kennedy, Randy. “Yale Law Professors Fix Their Eyes on Blind Lady Justice.” The New York

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http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/books/16justice.html.

MacKinnon, Bruce. “EDITORIAL CARTOON: Sept. 29, 2018 | The Chronicle Herald.”

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“Mature Male Lawyer Reading Book with Justice Scale over the Desk.” Freepik,

http://www.freepik.com/free-photo/mature-male-lawyer-reading-book-with-justice-scaledesk_

3114860.htm.

Ozier, Muhammad. “Looking at Lady Justice.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22

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Twenty-First-Century Courthouses. 2007.

Schelbert, Leo. Historical Dictionary of Switzerland. Scarecrow Press, 2007.

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