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Violet Oakley's Murals

"a silent but convincing witness to those things without which we build in vain" - Senator George Wharton Pepper's remarks about Oakley's murals during their unveiling on May 23, 1927

Joseph Huston selected two artists to complete the murals in the four governing chambers and the rotunda - Edwin Austen Abbey and Violet Oakley, Pennsylvania's most famous female artist at the time. Huston hoped to inspire other women to become artist and gave the commission for the Governor's Reception Room to Oakley. Abbey was given the House, Rotunda, Senate and Supreme Court. After completing the House Chamber and shortly before completing the Rotunda, Abbey died.  His assistant finished the Rotunda murals and Oakley assumed Abbey's commission for the Senate and Supreme Court. After finishing the Senate in 1917, Oakley began work on the Supreme Court's murals with a vision to show the evolution of law.

The Scale of Law

Serving somewhat as a table of contents, Ms. Oakley depicts the evolution of law, as a musical scale in E sharp, beginning and ending in Divine Law one octave higher.

Ms. Oakley’s first mural, Natural Law, takes place in neither the past, present, or future. But, instead, depicts humanity recognizing the necessity of and ushering in a golden age by living in harmony with natural law. These murals are designed in the style of a medieval manuscript and in the descriptive text she refers to these murals as pages.

Oakley's Religious Series

The first in Ms. Oakley's Revealed Law series depicts the Goddess Themis in the upper left hand corner of this acting as an intermediary between the gods and the king. A man bowing at the feet of the king depicts the Greek idea that a king’s judgments themselves are divine - Themistes.

Next, Ms. Oakley depicts Moses carving the Ten Commandments upon Mount Sinai. Transitioning from the previous idea that a king’s judgments were divine to the laws themselves being diving.

Finally, Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount. While most of the murals in this room are accompanied by Ms. Oakley’s commentary, in these past two she deliberately chose to not do so, just writing the Ten Commandments and Beatitudes, verbatim, so as to contrast the “dos” of Christianity with the “don’ts” of Judaism

Roman and Common Law

Next, Byzantine Emperor Justinian in Santa Sophia (now Hagia Sophia) kneeling in gratitude for the codification of Roman law. Justinian reduced law to the idea, “That we should live honestly, that we should hurt nobody, and should render to everyone his due.”

Depicting English Common Law, Judge William Blackstone sits opposite the entryway in All Souls’ Library delivering a lecture on the English Common Law. In the panels surround Judge Blackstone, Oakley included two of his commentaries that she believed best illuminated the relationship between the Law of Reason, Divine Law, Natural Law, and Revealed Law.

William Penn in Solitude

William Penn sits in solitude hiding from his political enemies in England who cast doubt on his allegiance to King William III. Surrounding him are great statesman and writers. Specifically George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, Sir Thomas More holding “Utopia,” John Milton holding “Paradise Regained,” Grotius, father of International Law, Henry IV of France, John Locke, Sir Algernon Sidney, and Woodrow Wilson. Violet Oakley painted herself in the upper-left.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

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The Supreme Court at Independence Hall on May 18, 2022 in celebration of its 300th anniversary. (L to R) Justices Sallie Updyke Mundy, Kevin M. Dougherty, Debra Todd, Chief Justice Max Baer, Justices Christine Donohue, David N. Wecht, P. Kevin Brobson.

Next, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania sits in its chambers in what is now known as Independence Hall. The Justices sitting behind the bench, Chief Justice McKean, later Chief Justice Edward Shippen IV, and Justices William Augustus Atlee, and George Bryan, in that courtroom would have been able to observe the Declaration of Independence being signed and the Constitution being drafted in the legislative chamber sitting opposite of the courtroom. All but Atlee's portaits currently hang in hallway leading to the courtroom.

(l to r) Chief Justices McKean and Shippen, Justices Bryan and Atlee, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Wilson

U.S. and International Law

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the oldest appellate court in the nation, traces its lineage back to William Penn’s Provincial Court of 1684. Sitting in the back of the Courtroom is the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Marshall, in front of the US Capitol Building. Marshall, a legal luminary, upheld the principle of in which courts could strike down laws that conflicted with the Constitution. Interestingly enough, soon after completing her outline of this mural, Oakley received a nearly identical sketch from Senator Pepper as a suggestion.

The Judges of the International Court of Justice. An homage to Davinci’s Last Supper, the twelve judges sit in the Palace of Peace at the Hague. That palace was funded entirely by famed Pennsylvanian industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Oakley's Hope for Peace

After her completion of the Senate chamber in 1917, Oakley began her work for this room during the First World War. And as a result, shared respect for the law and its effect on international peace was important to her. The next mural reflects the culmination of such aspirations, with Jesus on tumultuous seas sinking the weapons of war.

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To the left of the entryway is the spirit of law in which runs through all countries, down throughout all ages, purified by wisdom and meeting in light.

Divine Law

Finally, to perhaps the most famous piece in the room, both the alpha and omega to her presentation. Oakley’s Divine Law mural hangs above the entryway and concludes musical scale one octave higher. In the background a woman’s face, the face of truth, overlooks the earth below. In the foreground she put listed three elements necessary for Divine Law, most obvious is a salmon colored L along the left and bottom. Cradled within the L is a blue A and W. Law. Next, in the spine of the L, she subtly hides in blue O V and E. Love. Lastly, being suspended by cherubims and seraphims within the contours of the W are I S D O and M. Love, Law, and Wisdom. Divine Law. Oakley painted a quote from Psalm 138:2 at the bottom "Thou hast magnified thy word above all they name."

Huston's vision for the Capitol was that it be a palace of art and in no chamber is that vision fulfilled as much as it is the Supreme Court's courtroom. For nearly 100 years, Oakley's murals have inspired fairer judging, honest arguments, and better citizenship. 

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