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Birds of a feather

Want to win a bet?

Ask your best lawyer friend which bird appears on the seal of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Chances are he or she will guess a bald eagle, or a cardinal, perhaps. Both answers would be wrong.

Here’s a hint: This creature cannot fly. Nor is it particularly intelligent.

No, it’s not a penguin. Though that would be just as weird.

“Ostrich” is the correct answer. Really.

Let’s back up a bit: The Supreme Court of Virginia was established in 1778, but it wasn’t until 1935 that the justices decided it was time to seal the deal with an official Supreme Court logo.

They went classical and drew inspiration from the Italian artist Raphael – specifically from his 1519 painting of “Justitia,” or Justice, which appears in a mural in the papal apartments in Rome.

The painting features a regal, robed woman seated among the virtues, holding a scale up high with her left hand…

And gripping the neck of an ostrich with her right.

What?

If it’s been a while since you last saw an ostrich, take a moment to Google an image of the strange-looking bird. If you’re anything like us, perhaps you won’t find its skinny neck, tiny head, bulging eyes and long legs particularly…symbolic.

You’re not alone. During the Renaissance and medieval times, scientists viewed the peculiar looking creature as a half-bird, half-beast hybrid. In other cultures, ostriches are a symbol of denial and avoidance. This is due to the fact that the large bird often sticks its head into the sand when it’s trying to hide, as though this suddenly makes the rest of its body invisible.

That image isn’t particularly desirable for a court, but there once was a far more favorable view of the ostrich. To see it, let’s jump into the Way-back Machine.

Our destination is ancient Egypt. According to the then-prevailing beliefs, when people died, they were sent to the Hall of Judgment to see Ma’at, the goddess of justice and order. Ma’at’s staple accessory was an ostrich feather in her hair.

If the weight of a person’s soul balanced against Ma’at’s feather, then they could proceed to the afterlife. If not, their journey ended there.

Walk like an Egyptian for a moment longer and ponder a hieroglyph.

Gail Warren, the state law librarian, has studied the ostrich seal, and her colleagues have researched it. She explained that in early Egypt, the hieroglyph for “justice” was, yep, an ostrich feather. Why? The two sides of the feather are uniquely symmetrical, Warren said, indicating balance and fairness. She added that there is even an art history book, “Raphael’s Ostrich,” dedicated to figuring out the ostrich mystery.

So the next time you’re in the Supreme Court chambers, take a look at the wall at the far-right of the bench. There’s your ostrich.

Or just take a look at the certificate you got from the high court after you were sworn in as a lawyer, embossed with the court’s official seal. You may have it hanging on your office wall. If so, you may have been providing a home to the high court ostrich all these years, without even knowing it.

Maura Mazurowski
and Paul Fletcher