Within International Law’s Sistine Chapel: José María Sert y Badia’s “The Lesson of Salamanca” in, and as, International Legal History (1936)

No. 2023-03

What place, if any, should buildings and artworks have in the history of international law? In the state of the art, there doesn’t seem to be much space for either space or art. Indeed, despite the renaissance of legal and historical scholarship on the League of Nations, we still know little about the materiality and aesthetics of the sites in which this institution fashioned a shell for itself. In this essay, I analyze the place of José María Sert y Badia’s mural “The Lesson of Salamanca” (1936) in international legal history. This colossal artwork was commissioned and donated by the fledging Second Spanish Republic to adorn the meeting hall of the League’s highest organ: its Council. By glorifying the memory of the Spanish theologian Francisco de Vitoria, “The Lesson of Salamanca” also purported to tell a story about the relationship between the past, present, and future of international law — it acted as a history of international law. To illuminate its role in, and as, international legal history, I trace how Sert’s homage to peace instead became its funeral oration, highlighting the connections between this painting, the Spanish Civil war, and the crisis of the League’s “imperial internationalism.”

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