During a Supreme Court session last fall, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was spotted looking toward the soaring ceiling of the Court chamber, her eyes roaming the sculpted marble friezes on the upper walls. But it was evident she was not just daydreaming. The justices had just granted review in a pair of cases testing the constitutionality of Ten Commandment displays in public places, and it appeared that O’Connor was searching the walls for the Court’s very own Ten Commandment display: Hebrew-inscribed tablets held by Moses, one of a series of historical figures who look down on the justices.
The cases of Van Orden v. Perry and McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky will be argued today, and chances are good that justices will be glancing up again to look at the south frieze where Moses resides � or else that one or more lawyers before them will make reference to the frieze.
Numerous briefs in the case refer to it, usually to make the point that the challenged Ten Commandment displays cannot possibly be unconstitutional if the Court itself has tolerated one in its own chamber since the building opened 70 years ago. The tablets, according to Liberty Counsel lawyer Mathew Staver, who will argue today, represent “the only written words inside this chamber.”
All the attention has reawakened interest in the Moses frieze inside the Court � who sculpted it, why, and even what the words on the tablets actually say.
German-born sculptor Adolph Weinman sculpted the friezes in the Court chamber, under a $120,000 contract with Court architect Cass Gilbert. Best known for designing the Mercury dime and the “Walking Liberty” half-dollar in 1916, Weinman lived in New York and died in 1952. His grandson Paul, an assistant United States attorney in North Carolina, remembers him vaguely as “a very nice guy with a German accent.”
In correspondence between Weinman and Gilbert in 1932 and 1933 about the design of the friezes, the Ten Commandments is not even mentioned. Moses is described as one in a parade of “great lawgivers of history,” as Weinman put it, along with Hammurabi, the king of Babylon, among others. (The correspondence, by the way, is filed with the New-York Historical Society.)
What is less clear is why Weinman used Hebrew text rather than the typical Roman numerals in depicting the Ten Commandments in Moses’ hands, and why he shows only commandments six through 10 � usually viewed as the more secular of the Ten Commandments.
Some have even asked why Moses’ beard obscures enough of the Hebrew that instead of reading “Though Shalt Not Steal,” it says “Steal,” and similarly appears to command viewers to kill and commit adultery, to boot. An Israeli sculptor named Avrahaum Segol has bombarded the Court and the media with letters questioning Weinman’s motivations. Earlier this year a Court official wrote Segol, “It is clear that the sculptor intended for the tablet to represent the entire text of the Ten Commandments.”
The Court knows well the powerful symbolism of Weinman’s friezes. In 1997, Muslim groups asked the Court to remove from a frieze opposite Moses the sculpted image of the prophet Mohammed � offensive to Muslims because depictions of the prophet are prohibited. When the Court declined, protests erupted throughout the Muslim world.
Tony Mauro can be contacted at email@example.com.