Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (La Justice et la Vengeance divine poursuivant le Crime) by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon

Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime, 1808, Oil on canvas, 244 x 294 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 7340, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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Measure for Measure

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
David Emanuel

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon’s Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime masterfully captures a crime scene.

Standing out at the bottom of the painting is the victim of a brutal robbery, with blood still seeping from a wound in his chest. To the left we see the perpetrator (Crime) fleeing the scene with the victim’s belongings in his arms. With his gaze on the corpse, Crime remains oblivious to the figure of Divine Vengeance above, who has sought him out. The personification of Vengeance is depicted looking back at another personification (of Justice), who carries a sword in her right hand poised and ready to strike the night robber.

Prud’hon’s depiction of Crime, who comes at night to perform his wicked deeds, illuminates two aspects of Obadiah’s prophecy: Edom’s crimes against Judah, and God’s punishment of Edom. When the Babylonians sacked and exiled Judah in 586 BCE, Edom was at their side pillaging and reoccupying the deserted Judaean villages, acting like thieves in the night, lying concealed under cover of the Babylonian army. Like to Prud’hon’s thief, Edom attacked and pillaged a helpless victim, believing it could escape punishment. The other aspect of Obadiah’s prophecy concerns God’s punishment of Edom. Here, Obadiah employs the image of the thief in the night: verse 5 says, ‘If thieves came to you, if plunderers by night—how you have been destroyed!’.

Together, these two perspectives highlight the ancient concept of lex talionis. Present in the New Testament (see Matthew 7:2) and Rabbinic literature (Mishnah Sotah 1:7), this is the principle of measure for measure: with the same measure a sin or crime is committed, the perpetrator is punished. Edom acted as a thief in the night, plundering its neighbours, and as equal recompense, it too would be plundered, as indicated in Obadiah 6: ‘How Esau has been pillaged’.

 

References

Hill, Andrew E., and John H. Walton. 2009. A Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House)

Weston, Helen. 1975. ‘Prud’hon: Justice and Vengeance’, The Burlington Magazine, 117.867: 353–363