Such relief: Many of history’s famous lawgivers watch over happenings in the House

Etched in marble, 23 “Relief Portraits of Lawgivers” sit above the doors inside the House Chamber. Each one represents a creator of at least one principle on which the American legal system is built.

George Mason — a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 who was opposed to the Constitution’s ratification until the Bill of Rights was added — sits above the Speaker’s chair. Thomas Jefferson — a Founding Father and principal author of the Declaration of Independence — rounds out the collection. 

American political figures are not the only lawgivers depicted. The portraits include emperors, sultans and popes. There’s even a portrait of Moses, the receiver of the Ten Commandments, rules that mirror the basic code of conduct for many modern societies.

Moses’ portrait stands out from the pack. Unlike the others, which depict their subject’s profile, Moses is staring straight ahead, his long hair and beard flowing. The portrait was sculpted by Jean de Marco, one of seven artists who created the series.

David Bjelajac, an art and American studies professor at the George Washington University, said the relief portraits in the chamber are similar in content to the Supreme Court building’s marble friezes or wall sculptures.

Like the portraits in the House Chamber, the friezes in the Supreme Court building depict historical lawgivers, including religious figures, despite the Constitution’s strict separation of church and state.

Bjelajac said religion is present in much of the art within Washington’s buildings, including the Capitol Complex and the Supreme Court. He said, however, that the figures represented are “religiously diverse” and inclusive of all religions, often mitigating controversy over the religious symbols’ presence. 

Scholars from the Library of Congress, the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia Historical Society of Washington, D.C., selected the historical and allegorical figures, which were later approved by a committee made up of five members of the House and the Architect of the Capitol.

Each portrait is carved into a 28-inch-diameter circle of Vermont marble, and is surrounded by an olive-branch wreath. The portraits were installed in 1949, after the chamber was remodeled.

Architect of the Capitol spokeswoman Eva Malecki said those without access to the chamber can view plaster models of the portraits on the walls by the Rayburn House Office Building subway.