Ben Shahn

The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

On view
Floor 5



Tempera and opaque watercolor on canvas mounted on composition board

Overall: 84 × 48in. (213.4 × 121.9 cm)

Accession number

Sacco-Vanzetti series, 1931-1932

Credit line
Gift of Edith and Milton Lowenthal in memory of Juliana Force

Rights and reproductions
© Estate of Ben Shahn / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti is one of a series of twenty-three paintings that Ben Shahn made about the controversial trial of two working-class Italian-American immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.In 1927, the men were sentenced to death for armed robbery and the murder of a shoe company paymaster and his guard in South Braintree, Massachusetts. After a jury convicted them on the basis of circumstantial evidence, three specially appointed commissioners upheld the death sentence verdict. The case caused public outrage since the case against the two men was weak, and many believed that they were the victims of ethnic discrimination, right-wing politics, and a corrupt police investigation. Their execution provoked international riots and protest demonstrations. In this large-scale canvas, Shahn vividly portrays all the characters: Sacco and Vanzetti lying dead in their coffins; the unsympathetic commissioners who upheld the death sentence after years of appeal; and Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over the trial and passed sentence, taking an oath in the courthouse. Two members of the committee proffer lilies, a fraudulent mourning gesture in light of their decision. As a well-known symbol of the crucified Christ, the lilies also suggest that Sacco and Vanzetti are martyrs, punished for sins they did not commit. 


  • America Is Hard to See

    Ben Shahn, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931–32

    Ben Shahn, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931–32


    Adam Weinberg: Alan Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

    Alan Dershowitz: Felix Frankfurter was the lawyer who in fact tried to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti after they had been falsely convicted, falsely in the sense that the evidence used against them was questionable.

    The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, by Ben Shahn, shows four villains, judges, very distinguished Massachusetts citizens, standing over the coffins of the recently executed victims of the injustice, Sacco and Vanzetti. The people standing over the coffin, in the center, A. Lawrence Lowell, the bigoted president of Harvard University, who was appointed by the governor of Massachusetts to be the chairman of the commission to review the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Lowell was an admitted racialist. He believed in racial quotas. He established them at Harvard. His two compatriots were the president of MIT and a retired judge named Grant. 

    Standing over them, almost hovering above them, is the Judge Webster Thayer who presided over the trial, and made a mockery of justice. He told people he was out to get these radical Italians, and he would not rest until they were in their graves. 

    The case itself was a simple armed robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts. A paymaster was shot and killed. Nobody will ever know whether Sacco and Vanzetti, or Sacco or Vanzetti, were responsible for the killings. That’s become lost in the evidence that was distorted and destroyed by the state. 

    They were sentenced to death, and the execution was carried out after many many protests and much turmoil. And the legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti will live on. And we will long understand the real villains of the case were the judges and the university presidents who lent the legitimacy and the legitimacy of their institutions to a case of racism and injustice.

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