Ruth Weisberg


It is really intriguing that the figure of Justice has persisted into modem times, an almost singular survival from an earlier period in which allegorical personifications were commonplace. And just what is an "allegorical personification"? Although we may be familiar with allegory as a representation of an abstract idea or concept usually involving humans or animals, we tend to be less knowledgeable in regard to allegory as a system of complex visual signs. Figures such as Justice have traditionally been accompanied by significant props or material attributes that identified them and elucidated their meaning. They were part of a vast array of embodiments or personifications that served multiple purposes, the most important of which was the organization of an elaborate conceptual system of values.

More specifically, Justice, traditionally grouped with the Cardinal Virtues, originated in ancient Greece. The Cardinal Virtues typically consisted of Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance, all of which had their accompanying attributes. For example, Fortitude might be depicted escorted by a lion or embracing a broken column and Temperance often holds a bridle. While certain of these props are unvarying, there was significant leeway in the choice of attributes over the centuries. E.H. Gombrich writes of the customary way of constructing an allegorical personification in which "an image or a concept can be explicated by means of attributes and it is really a matter of taste or tact how far the poet or artist wishes to go in piling up these specifications, how many attributes he wants to give Prudence to match her definition."