Grotius on War and Peace

This elaborate frontispiece is to the 1681 Dutch edition of Hugo Grotius’ De Iure Belli ac Pacis (The Rights or The Law of War and Peace) first published in 1625. The etching was produced by the acclaimed Dutch artist, Romeyn de Hooghe (1645 – 1708), one of the most celebrated illustrators of the 17th century. He was born in Amsterdam, and in addition to his etchings, was widely acclaimed as a sculptor, painter, medalist and draughtsman. During his professional life, he produced more than 3500 prints that drew extensively from ancient and classical sources. When commissioned to illustrate a book, he took pains to pictorially represent the most important themes contained in the text. In this frontispiece to Grotius’ massive volumes on international law, we see an excellent example of de Hooghe’s work. Suffering humanity has made an offering to the gods represented by the boar sacrificed before the temple of the divine, where stand the deities of war (Ares) and peace (Eirene). Above them, hovers the goddess of justice (Themis), who has answered mankind’s plea for deliverance from the chaos of the world depicted in various images scattered around the temple. Holding her scales above the upheld hand of Eirene wielding a draughtsman’s compass, Themis has signaled that peace now holds the authority to circumscribe the affairs of nations by laws specially calibrated to govern the affairs of mankind. No longer standing aloof from the affairs of the world, Eirene signals her willingness to assume her new role by stepping down from her pedestal. Until that moment, the affairs of nations had been left to the mindless cycles of nature. Those cycles have now been suspended literally in the crook of Eirene’s arm, in the form of the Ouroboros (snake devouring its own tail), a symbol dating back to ancient Egyptian times. Ares looks on in astonishment, his sword lowered in the classic gesture to stand down, while mayhem in the shape of a demon cowers backward from behind Eirene. The cornucopia of prosperity separating Eirene from Ares, signals the promise of the prosperity that is to come with the dawn of the new age of peace under international law.

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington