February 07, 2006

A sculpture that "bears no resemblance" to its subject

According to a 1998 article by Washington Post staff writer Joan Biskupic:

In the Supreme Court's white marble courtroom, the nine sitting justices are not the only presiding presence. At the center of the nation's legal system, high above the justices' mahogany bench, the great lawgivers of history are depicted in marble friezes.

From Hammurabi to Moses to John Marshall, the stone sculptures commemorate written law as a force for stability in human affairs. The larger-than-life artworks, designed by architectural sculptor Adolph A. Weinman as the courthouse was being built in the early 1930s, convey the idea that, while the law begins with individuals, its principles never die.

The 18 lawgivers looking down on the justices are divided into two friezes of ivory-colored, Spanish marble. On the south wall, to the right of incoming visitors, are figures from the pre-Christian era -- Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius and Octavian (Caesar Augustus). On the north wall to the left are lawmakers of the Christian era -- Napoleon Bonaparte, Marshall, William Blackstone, Hugo Grotius, Louis IX, King John, Charlemagne, Muhammad and Justinian.

Interspersed with the lawgivers are angels representing concepts such as philosophy, liberty and peace.

Recent events underline the fact that one of these 18 figures is implicitly controversial. (There's a photo of the currently-relevant figure here. And at least one of the other 18 figures has also been the subject of controversy, though for different reasons.)

The same article gives some evidence to support the concerns of aniconists and even iconoclasts:

Occupying nearly the highest point of the luminous, gold-edged room, above the 30-foot Ionic columns, the friezes inspire awe. When Sherman Minton, a Supreme Court justice from 1949 to 1956, pointed out the friezes to his grandson, the 10-year-old asked the predictable question, "Granddaddy! Where's God?"

(though I don't personally share those prejudices.) In 1997,

A coalition of Muslim groups asked the court to sandblast or otherwise remove the depiction of Muhammad, contending that it was a form of sacrilege because graven images are forbidden in Islam and that believers might be encouraged to pray to someone other than God, or Allah in Arabic.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist rejected the request, saying the Muhammad sculpture "was intended only to recognize him, among many other lawgivers, as an important figure in the history of law; it is not intended as a form of idol worship."

According to the footnote on p.7-8 of K.M. Sharma, "What's in a name?: Law, religion and Islamic names", Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, 1998 (link from TPM):

Rehnquist also dismissed the objection to the curved sword in the marble Muhammad's hand as reinforcing the stereotypical image of Muslims as intolerant conquerors: "I would point out that swords are used throughout the Court's architecture as a symbol of justice and that nearly a dozen swords appear in the courtroom friezes alone." Rehnquist said that the description and literature, however, would be changed to identify Muhammad as a "Prophet of Islam," and not "Founder of Islam." The rewording, based upon "input of numerous Muslim groups," would also say that the figure "is a well-intentioned attempt by the sculptor Adolph Weinman to honor Mohammed, and it bears no resemblance to Mohammed."

The same events are discussed in the 10th Anniversary Report of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) here (on p. 22), which presents this interaction as the first of a series of cases where "CAIR continued to rely on the strength of its numbers to challenge inappopriate portrayals of Islam". The presentation implies that CAIR viewed the resulting change in description with satisfaction -- at least, it's placed first in a series of examples, the third of which is introduced as "another great success".

I don't recall that the "attempt to honor"/"no resemblance" argument was presented on behalf of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or for that matter the religious statues destroyed during the Dutch Beeldenstorm in 1566, nor do I imagine that such an argument would have been effective. Its acceptance in this case may therefore reflect the logic of power more than the power of logic.

[Update: the fate of a similar statue in New York City was different, as this 2/12/2006 NYT story by John Kifner explains:

Perhaps the longest-running -- if least noticed -- depiction of Muhammad in New York City was an 8-foot-tall statue on the roof of the State Appellate Division courthouse on Madison Square. The building was erected at the turn of the 20th century, back in the days when graft got you some architecture.

Muhammad was one of 10 lawgivers -- among them Moses, Confucius, Justinian and Alfred the Great -- along with other allegorical figures like Peace, Wisdom, Justice and the four seasons, for a total of 21 statues adorning the building. His identity came to public light after more than 50 uneventful years when the Department of Public Works announced a $1.2 million project to repair the statues, clean the building and put up a five-story addition.

Ambassadors from Indonesia, Pakistan and Egypt went to the State Department to ask that the statue be destroyed rather then renovated. The justices in the court agreed.

So in 1955, Muhammad, who had a turban, a book, a scimitar and rather Old Testament-looking beard, lost his prominent place atop the courthouse's southwest corner. Everybody else was moved one spot to the left, leaving empty the pedestal that once held Justinian. Muhammad was lowered by block and tackle, wrapped in excelsior and trucked off to a stone company in Newark. In the last reported sighting -- in 1983 -- the statue was lying on its side in a stand of tall grass somewhere in New Jersey.


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 7, 2006 07:31 AM