Sword of justice


Often called “executioner’s swords,” swords of justice served as icons of political power. Their decoration depicted instruments of torture and punishment as well as symbols of Justice. Less decorative examples were used as beheading implements, but this ceremonial version served purely as a reminder of the majesty of the state, and its power over life and death.

The blade is inscribed "When the poor sinner is deprived of life,/then he will be placed under my hand./ When I raise the sword/may God give the poor sinner eternal life."


Long, broad double-edge straight blade with bluntly rounded point. Reinforced at shoulders. Faces with wide medial fuller in forte. Etched with script German text (see Marks). Both faces of third of blade nearest hilt are etched & gilded with symmetrical strapwork & foliation on hatched ground. At end of decoration is etched figure of Justice with sword & scales, wearing a bilevel, tiered dress having elbow-length sleeves, & standing on footed plinth. At shoulders of blade is red felt, scalloped washer. Cruciform hilt of gilded bronze, with wooden (?) grip covered in fish skin, & tapering to pommel. At ends of grip are bronze bands decorated with engraved lines. Crossguard reeded at center, then 2 stage--square, then octagonal--having turned terminals. Pommel fig-shaped, with turned base. Main part of body octagonally faceted & decorated with leafy & scrolling pointillé motifs. Top fluted, with flared, flat button that reveals flattened terminal of tang & copper shim.

Curator's Comments

Variants of the inscription appear on blades, largely from Solinger, from the last quarter of the 17th century into the first quarter of the 18th century. The execution of the script itself should be compared to that of a Solingen blade dated 1714, in the Swiss National Museum, Zurich (inv. no. LM11568; see Barockus Luxus (exhibition catalogue), S.N.M., 1988, cat. no. 45.) The costume worn by Justice should be compared to late 17th century styles (e.g. figs XII.33 and .35, from 1684, in Margot Lister, Costume: An Illustrated Survey from Ancient Times to the Twentieth Century (Boston, 1968).) Her sword is rather like that wielded by an executioner on the blade of a sword in the collection of Robin Wigington, Stratford- uopn-avon, which he dates (perhaps too early) to the 1660s.


Cf. CMA 1916.1620.

Hahn, Falko (2007). "Ewiges leben für Sünder." Schwert und Klingen: 56-61.

For other executioner swords, see Reichsstadtmuseum Rothenburg (2010) 492 ff.

For a detailed biography of a Nuremberg executioner of c. 1600, see Joel F. Harrington, 'The Faithful Executioner' (2013).

Publication & Exhibit History

In Peter Finer section of "Noteworthy Sales," in "The Catalogue of Antiques & Fine Art" (Summer 2001): 14 (shown with scabbard). "Peter Finer 1996" (sale catalogue), no. 127, ill. Karcheski, Walter J., Jr., "New Acquisitions for the Higgins Armory Museum," Man at Arms 2 (1977), 14-15.


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