Art review: The Groeninge Museum’s temporary exhibition De Kunst van het Recht/The Art of Law covers artworks from 1450-1750, sweeping the visitor along a thoughtful and often unsettling path.
By: Ben Blunnie
The breadth of the exhibition is wide — starting with the trumpets of the Apocalypse heralding the Last Judgement, taking the viewer through classical and biblical stories of justice, and ending with a more domestic, but no less moralising, view of Flemish justice in the early modern age.
Yet, the exhibition occasionally neglects to interrogate the broader conceptions of justice. There is an emphasis on criminal law, but little engagement with the overall justice and fairness of the penal system; there is an emphasis on punishment, but little engagement with the less gory aspects of quotidian dispute settlement. A casual observer could well imagine justice to be the simple application of immutable laws, rather than a complex exercise in truth-framing, testimony, persuasion and — sometimes — mercy.
The theme of justice as a spectacle – part entertainment, part moral education – continues throughout the exhibition. A woodcut from Praxis rerum ciminalem, a treatise published by renowned Bruges jurist Joos de Damhouder, shows a frightening array of floggings, beheadings, and tortures overseen by the town magistrates and Lady Justice. In the third room with legend of Cambyses, not only is the corrupt Sisamnes sentenced to be skinned alive, but also his son is appointed by King Cambyses to assume his father’s position. More unsettling than the gory death is Jean de Saive’s interpretation, showing the dead judge’s skin hanging on his son’s seat.
Hans Vredemen de Vries’s Judgement of Zaleucus shows justice as a power which outruns any one person’s authority. Zaleucus decreed that adulterers should be blinded, but when his own son was arrested, Zalecus volunteered one of his own eyes, so that justice should be done but mercy shown too. As Shakespeare wrote of Shylock, he shall have more justice than he desires.
Women play minor roles in these works, a fact reflective of the historic marginalisation of women in the justice system. Showing women as untrustworthy, overly-emotional witnesses is compared to an equally sexist view of women as hysterical and vengeful. Thus, in part of the second room hangs a series of interpretations of The Revenge of Tomyris. Queen Tomyris takes bloody revenge for her son’s capture and suicide by murdering King Cyrus after his defeat in battle. Like an antithetical Lady Justice, Tomyris fills the centreground in a triumph of raw vengeance, thrusting Cyrus’ severed head into a basket. This is a stark contrast with the preceding depictions of “exemplary” and “merciful” justice depicted in later works showing the Virgin Mary as Justitia.
The most poignant works in the exhibit, however, are the least “artistic”. They are the “penalty pieces”, metal plaques and fists or heads cast in metal, made to punish or record certain crimes. The viewer immediately thinks of the individual who suffered public humiliation as their transgression was remembered for all time. It is far from the theatrical, cosmic justice depicted in the Last Judgement or the allegorical stories. Here, the law is not an abstract theory or an impersonal conception; it touches on human lives, disputes, and weaknesses. The value of this exhibition is that it challenges us to see the humanity and the art in practical law as much as idealised justice.
De Kunst van het Recht (The Art of Law) is at the Groeninge Museum (museabrugge.be) until 05 February.