Coins: Mirrors of Art and Reflections of Taste

(c) copyright 1986 by Chicago Coin Club

A great scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, speaking not of science but outside his specialized field and of common place things is reputed to have said, "Coins are the most fascinating and innovative type of ART that moves people." This may have been said with tongue in cheek, alluding to the fact that the world's generator is economic not aesthetic. Yet coins, indeed, do connate artistic endeavor. If one could look at a tiny coin in any man's pocket or purse, that man's position on the ladder of time as well as the place of the tangible object within the history of art would be reflected in the metal of which the coin is made.

The field of numismatics is a vast subject embracing the study of coins as well as many other interests. Pre-monetary forms of exchange, medals, tokens, scrip, paper money, and the history and technology behind each issue fascinate the numismatist. Those engrossed in other fields often use coins as primary sources. Archeological discoveries have often been dated by the numismatic items found. The economic growth of a people has been traced by the numismatic evidence. History, indeed, speaks not only through the paths of war but by the coins left in the dust.

Yet, what of the men who walked these paths? What were their likes and dislikes? What symbols did they prefer and use? What were their values? In short, what were the tastes of their times? Again, one may look to numismatics to assist in answering such questions.

Though the coins may be small lumps dulled by age and use, they serve as brilliant reflecting mirrors of the age in which they were produced. One finds that coins represent their era as loudly and forcefully as do the well known works of art from the same period. Considering their diminutive size, the practical reason for their production, and their common day usage, it is fascinating, if not miraculous, that such lowly pieces do mirror the same cultural and artistic visions as do the more famous and aristocratic works of art: the architecture, sculpture, and painting.

One sees an occasional coin in art books and a few pieces of sculpture or paintings in numismatic works but they appear only seldom and the comparison usually stops there. The purpose of this chapter is to point out the almost eerie similiarities of a coin of any age and the great art of the same era. Often the artistic style is identical. Often the similarity of subject and thus of interest reveals their position on the time chart of history.

One hears of a "talent" in the Biblical parable. The talent came from Babylonia. In looking at pre-Greece, at Mycenae, one also finds the basic unit of measure to be a talent - a large piece of bronze cast in the shape of an ox hide (Figure 1-A). It curls in at the edges as a hide would and often weighed up to sixty pounds. It was used as a medium of exchange and ranks within the category of pre-coinage. It is not extremely attractive as a work of art, but let us consider the subject and then look at Aegean art in general.

The classic example of art of this period is the Toreador fresco of Knossos, Crete, dating from about 1500 B.C. (Figure 1-B). We see a ritual game depicted. Again appears the bull, which was the source of the hide represented by the shape of the talent. Perhaps because of our lack of knowledge of the civilization, there is a mystery in both the talent and the painting. Both are strangely ambiguous.

The Vaphio cups of the Mycenaeans, dating from approximately 1500 B.C., provide yet another example of Aegean work where bulls are the subject (Figure 1-C). In this example it is a domesticated bull rather than a ritual bull which is represented. The subject for the greatest of the artistic expressions of this culture is also the same subject as that traded daily in the market place. The subject in art or in numismatics reflects what was of value to the people. Cattle meant wealth.

The Greeks are credited with being the originators of coinage although in the beginning their coins were little more than lumps of metal bearing the mark of the issuing authority. Soon, symbols such as the head of a patron god came to connote the city of origin. Perhaps the most famous of Greek coins are these of Athens (Figure 2-A). One finds similarities in these coins and in the monumental sculpture of the period. Compare the smile of Athena on an early coin of Athens with that of the Kore from the 6th century B.C. (Figure 2-B). Both display the same "archaic" smile which we now translate as evidence of human emotion but which was then read as the symbolic indication of the humanness of the figure. Both artists used similar formulas in the rendering of the hair. Every curl, either in metal or stone, closely resembles a rolled coil of clay. We see in each work of art a borrowing from the Egyptian mode of depicting a human eye in the full face perspective. This was the accepted symbol meaning "eye" and as such was automatically used in renditions of the human face.

Greek art also reveals the ancient world's predilection with the realm of monsters. A coin from Neapolis bears the same figure, the Gorgon, as does the pediment from the temple of Artemis at Corfu and both date from the 6th century B.C. (Figures 3-A and 3-B). On this same pediment we see that the figure is fashioned in a pin wheel position. On a coin from Thessaly a winged god is depicted in a similar position (Figure 3-C). The figures on both move in place. This is a shorthand manner of indicating human motion. The figure continuously moves in place as a stationary wheel, but does not progress forward.

The Greeks indicated a strong preoccupation with horses. One early coin reveals a horse not unlike those often seen on early pieces of Greek pottery such as on the Dipylon Krater (Figure 4). Both artists were beginning to define the horse but not yet the movement of the animal.

A compelling interest in defining movement developed in the subsequent centuries in Greece. The artist, Euainetos, exhibited such concern in his design of the quadriga on the coin from Syracuse, Sicily (Figure 5-A). Here we have horsemen no less grand than those of the great Parthenon (Figure 5-B).

As all peoples, the Greeks took delight in portraying women and their attire and often depicted their fashions of dress, of hairstyle and of jewelry. We see this fascination on a coin from Sicily and in a Kore figure from Chios (Figure 6).

The Greek artists of the first half of the 5th century B.C. revealed their culture's great respect and awe for their gods. On a coin from Lucania the artist displayed his respect for the god's power and position (Figure 7-A). This super-human aspect of the gods who were above frailty is also shown on another rendition of the god, Poseidon, the bronze piece dates from the same period as the coin (Figure 7-B). The stance of the god is the same in both pieces. Also similar is the tautness of the motion and the lack of frail human emotion indicated.

In the classical Greek art of the latter half of the 5th century B.C. we find this aloof view of the gods changing. The deities were shown relaxed, unaware, and humanly beautiful. There is little indication of their god-like position either on the silver coin from Naxos or in the Dionysus (Heracles?) piece from the Parthenon pediment (Figure 8).

After the triumphs of the classical age we see the artist going into a stage of constant artistic experimentation for its own sake, He was self-consciously concerned with revealing his own technical skill. The full-face view on the Catana coin is chiefly a tour de force on the part of the artist (Figure 9-A). The same experimentation was occurring in sculpture as evidenced in the Nike from the temple of Athena Nike (Figure 9-B). The artist here was concerned with how he could show instantaneous action.

We have other examples of this experimentation and tour de force continuously occurring throughout the 4th century B.C. The artist's complete understanding of body structure and muscular pull becomes the chief subject of the Hercules fighting the Nemean lion from a 4th century coin of Heracleia and also of the Scraper by Lysippus (Figure 10).

During the Hellenistic age of the Greeks, after the rise of Alexander the Great and his expansion of the realm, we see the infiltration of the many differing cultures, sometimes not compatable cultures. In a gold coin from Thrace we have a reflection of this taste for the exotic and of the non-human (Figure 11-A). This is also evident in the bronze head from Turkey dating from the same period (Figure 11-B).

After Alexander, the new "internationalism" of the Greeks brought a taste for the foreign and the introduction of new and secret religions. These religions with secret initiations often involved exotic rituals. Sometimes, the ceremonies included the use of snakes. This influence may be seen on a coin from Pergamum as well as in the Laocöon figure from the 1st century B.C. (Figure 12).

During the Roman Republic, the figures representing the Roman incipience are an important element in art. The Romulus and Remus figures on the didrachma of the Republic speak of these beginnings (Figure 13-A). The same subject matter appears in the sculpture of the Etruscans, the early Romans. The She-wolf of the Capitoline museum presents one such example (Figure 13-B).

The Roman culture produced matter-of-fact, realistic artists whose mode of representation may be seen in the portrait of Caesar on the denarius of the Republic and in the Patrician figure holding the busts of his ancestors (Figure 14). The portraits reveal no attempt to idealize the figures but are frank, unpolished statements about rather ugly men who had made contributions to Roman civilization.

The Roman ideal of beauty was quite different than that of the Greeks. We see their realistic portrayal of women on coins of Faustina I and II and from a bust of 90 A.D. (Figure 15).

The Romans were proud of the empire which they were creating and current events had a special significance. Both the engraver of the sestertius of Vespasian and the government officials issuing the coin wished to depict the importance of the Conquest of Judea (Figure 16-A). Sculptors were also concerned with portraying the participation of Romans in these historical moments. The procession of the Ara Pacis created during the rule of Augustus tells more of the appearance of the population during a procession than it does of the festival being celebrated or the gods being honored (Figure 16-B). As in the rendition of the Emperor's victory in Judea, the participation of Romans creating these historical moments is exactly what the artists wished to capture. Roman art is an art of surface description and gives a panorama of the Roman culture though not necessarily the depth.

In the second and third centuries the Empire began to falter. The economy changed and so did artistic style. A double sestertius of Trajan Decius bears the symbol of the spiked coronet meaning a monetary devaluation (Figure 17-A). A change in the life of the Empire may also be noted in the artistic style of the column of Trajan (Figure 17-B). Artists switched from the classical tradition and were exploring a new mode.

The Christian religion was altering and changing the Empire in a multitude of ways. The depictions of Constantine I, whether on a gold coin or from a mammoth statue, reveal that portraiture was no longer the realistic style seen earlier in the Empire (Figure 18). The portrait now exists only as a symbol of the Emperor. The important factor is his station, not his individuality. This was the mode of Christian art in its embryo stage.

Byzantine artists who followed assumed the symbols used by early Christian artists and repeated them throughout the Byzantine Empire. The Virgin Orans seen on a coin of Michael VI was, no doubt, inspired originally by a prototype such as the praying figure painted in the catacomb of Priscilla (Figure 19). A 40 nummia piece of Justinianus I reveals the religious and political symbolism invested in the Emperor (Figure 20-A). He is both head of the state and of the church. He is the "Christ-like" Emperor. The Justinian mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna appears in the same manner (Figure 20-B). In fact, his figure occupies the sacred position of being located within the space of the altar. Stylistically both portraits are flat, but the symbol is of the Emperor, inspired and transformed, a figure to be held in awe.

The artist of a copper follis of Michael III cut the die in a manner resembling mosaic work which was the prevalent technique used by the Emperor's master craftsmen (Figure 21-A). This style was employed to decorate the sacred walls of San Vitale in Ravenna (Figure 2 1 -B). Even the fashion of the time reveals the geometric quality of the mosaic pieces. Compare a gold coin of Michael VI and the ivory carving done less than fifty years later (Figure 22). The art of both reveals a mosaic technique which developed because of the preference of taste. The identical stylistic preference on the part of the artists may be seen in a figure of St. Eudoxia from the 11th century and on the gold hyperpyron of Alexius I from the same era (Figure 23).

On a bronze follis of Basil II, the Christ projected is all powerful, reigning over all subjects (Figure 24-A). The same Christ Pantocrator or ruler of the Universe, appears in the 11th century apse of Daphne (Figure 24-B).

Several centuries later a silver hyperpyron of John V displays a Christ all encompassing in his judgment, removed and encircled by the realms surrounding Him (Figure 25-A). The Christ of the Palermo dome echoes the identical theological statement (Figure 25-B).

Even when narrating a Biblical story, the Byzantine artist wished to better reveal the religious symbolism of each episode and to preach the meaning of each scene. In order to do this, the panorama was broken into banks or rows. This was done on an early Byzantine medallion and in the mosaics of St. Mark's (Figure 26).

While the Byzantine Emperors reigned from various locations in the Empire, Europe was in a state of flux created by the continual movement of the population. The art of this Migration period reveals the background of the many tribes and clans (Figure 27). These people were on the move and thus their art was necessarily portable; even their mints were portable. There ensued a vibrant, free art of abstract and organic shapes.

During the Migration period the population of European towns and cities shrank. Almost as a miracle in the 11th century, however, the towns suddenly began to regain their importance. There occurred an amazing increase in building activity. Churches and fortresses rose as evidence of local authority. The emblem of each town was its towers. Loss of towers often meant loss of face for the ruling power. Towers were the architectural symbols of the strength and authority of the political structure. We see the ruler within the local towers on the Romanesque bracteate of Albrecht the Bear (Figure 28-A). The Biblical rulers also stand between the towers of the cathedral of Chartres (Figure 28-B). Quietly and majestically they state the historical significance of the power of the church. Both the small coin and the magnificent statue-column date from the first half of the 12th century.

Other coins from this same period reveal similar artistic motifs. A falcon, the symbol of Burkhard II of Falkenstein, guards the entrance of his town (Figure 29-A). On the west facade at Chartres, Christ and the symbols of the four apostles loom over those who enter the Heavenly City within (Figure 29-B). The central motifs in both works of art imply the power of the rulers: one worldly, one universal.

The Romanesque world is rarely identified with the classical, yet the art forms reveal a classical influence. This is understandable as there were many antique works available for the Medieval artist to study. The eagle often used during the Roman times reappears on a coin of Messina (Figure 30-A). An augustalis of Frederick II Hohenstaufen dates from 1225 and from the same time we have an eagle made from an antique vase for the Abbot Suger of St. Denis (Figure 30-B). One is struck by the proud, haughty and majestic appearance of each eagle. The artists of both have captured the attitude and bearing of the dignitary for whom the work was made. On the obverse of this same augustalis of Messina, the figure represented is actually clothed in a Roman toga (Figure 31-A). We see this same influence from Roman art revealed in Medieval painting (Figure 31-B). A manuscript pictures the apostle Matthew as a classical scholar.

By the Gothic era numerous towns had actually become city states and some rulers had become powerful enough to claim and defend large areas. The lords and kings held state in their courts and the art reflects this life of the court. A delicate, feminine quality appears in all the arts. We see it here on a royal d'or from France as well as in the Cathedral of Winchester (Figure 32). One also finds germinating in the late Gothic work of the North the humanistic philosophy which will fully blossom later in the South. Even the importance of women as figures of authority may be found during the 13th century. In the Cathedral of Naumburg there is portrayed the psyche of the feminine as well as that of the masculine ruler of the locality (Figure 33-B). A coin of Spain also exhibits the portraits of both rulers: Isabella as well as Ferdinand (Figure 33-A).

The aim of the Renaissance which followed was not to exactly duplicate the works of antiquity as is often stated, but rather to equal and, if possible, to surpass them. The Medieval world had copied antique works they little understood. The Renaissance artist, on the other hand, brought not the rebirth of antiquity as he thought but rather the birth of modern man. With this came the examination of individualism. In 15th century Italy, a Renaissance artist portrayed on the testoni of Milan the portrait of the Duke as a youth: an individualized, beautiful man in his prime (Figure 34-A). Sandro Botticelli, the Florentine painter, chose figures in the same youthful stage of life (Figure 34-B). The manner of rendering these two portraits is quite similar, even in such details as the hair style.

The 16th century produced giants in every field. During this time the master, Leone Leoni, designed a coin of the renowned Charles V of France (Figure 35-A). Michelangelo also chose a mature man's figure in representing the prophet in the Sistine Chapel (Figure 35-B).

All during the Renaissance the artists were very concerned with the technique of perspective and all its ramifications. One realizes that the religious theme on a Papal coin is intended as that of pilgrims at the holy door of St. Peter's (Figure 36-A). The actual theme of the artist, however, was the perspective of the buildings. An earlier painting in the Sistine Chapel by Pietro Perugino reveals the beginning of this fascination with perspective (Figure 36-B).

Using the technique of creating perspective which had been developed during the Renaissance, later Baroque artists and architects wished to surpass such skill and to encompass space itself. The ultimate of such study may be seen on a Papal coin of 1696 showing the Pope surrounded by his Cardinals (Figure 37-A). The actual artistic subject is the court designed by Bernini for St. Peter's in 1657 (Figure 37-B).

A revolt against the classical balance of the High Renaissance soon brought disquieting forms and a visionary style revealing the inner anxiety of the times. Twisting, turning, elongated figures dominate a coin of Tuscany (Figure 38-A). The arms and legs of the figures depicting the Baptism in the River Jordan somehow look more like stuffed socks than like human flesh. Similar cold, chilling, stretched figures may be seen in the work of the mannerist painter, Parmigianino (Figure 38-B).

The Baroque period nurtured such masters as Rembrandt. We find his theory of art not dissimilar to that of the coiner of Transylvania who designed this 25 ducat piece in 1681 (Figure 39). Both works display an artist's concern for revealing the status and station of life of his sitter. In this period of economic growth, the "clothes bespoke the man" and yet, in both works of art the artist's rendition of the psychic comes through the shadows of the physical.

A playful and diminutive refinement of the Baroque grandeur came with the Rococo age. Particularly in France and Germany, artists were looking for limitless space while displaying a yearning for the vista of the country-side, for a retreat if not an escape. This is exhibited on the magnificent coins of Brunswick-Luneburg and in the paintings of Antoine Watteau (Figure 40).

Interestingly, the yearning of the Rococo age led nowhere but back to the classical. The classical was romantic and the ancients were considered romantic for they had been a free people. This type of thinking inherent in neoclassical art is revealed in the first coinage of the United States, the 1793 cent by Adam Eckfeldt (Figure 41-A). In painting, also, such artists as Benjamin West were inventing a modern mode of expression to fit the classical mold (Figure 41-B).

By the 1830's the American public and its artists had begun to look afresh at their own country, to see as the scientist, and to view the wonders of nature first hand. The U.S. pattern by Christian Gobrecht done in 1838 shows that the artist had actually observed a flying eagle (Figure 42-A). Scientific observation was replacing the study of prints from abroad. The design of this pattern was then used for the Flying Eagle cent of 1856-58. As did the engraver, the important painters of the time attempted to observe nature. John James Audubon in painting animals and birds went to the swamps of Florida to sketch and portray his subject within the natural habitat (Figure 42-B).

In a few years the artists along with the pioneers and prospectors also went West. The painters wished to capture the Rockies and the great waterways and to record the Indians who dwelt there. One sees the fascination with the native American on the U.S. Indian cent of 1864 and in the painting of the Chief of the Iowas by George Catlin (Figure 43).

After the bitter Civil War, the artists of the United States turned to the pleasantness of depicting the dignity and wealth of the moneyed class. Particularly was the American girl placed upon a pedestal to be admired. The ideal of beauty may be seen on the Morgan dollar of 1886 as well as in the Gibson girl drawing after Charles Dana Gibson (Figure 44).

In the European art of the 19th century one sees the influence of the many social reforms of the period. A romantic view of the dignity of work and of the working class may be observed in French coinage (Figure 45-A). The design for the obverse of the 50 centimes piece originated in the 1890's and was later used for the one and the two francs pieces. Millet in painting "The Gleaners" in 1857 also reflected this romantic view of the working class (Figure 45-B).

The turning of the 19th into the 20th century brought an age of vibrant energy. It was the time of the robber barons, of financial building, and of expansion toward many horizons. Such energy is revealed in Augustus Saint Gaudens' magnificent $20 gold piece of 1907 (Figure 46-A). The artist forced the folds of the clothing to reveal the physical energy of the forms beneath. Another great sculptor, Auguste Rodin, accomplished this inherent power in his draped figure of Balzac (Figure 46-B).

Later 20th century artists developed a vision depicting their unprecedented age. Such a unique view may be seen in the geometric interplay of forms accomplished by the designer of the Austrian 100 shilling piece (Figure 47-A). Geometry of forms also became the chief subject matter in the painting by Ben Nicholson (Figure 47-B). All is reduced to basic design in the shape and in the color.

The artist's emphasis upon a single symbol and the directness of artistic reserve and economy may be seen revealed in a 5 mark piece of Germany and in this painting by the American artist, Robert Indiana (Figure 48).

In contemporary art, often forms become anthropomorphic. They take on a life of their own. As a monster, they crawl, look and threaten as does much in our society. The Israeli Mint has shown great skill in rendering ancient forms, such as the Menorah, in a modern tone. An example of the most modern of coins comes from the Biblical land. This Menorah is not unlike the form of the sculpture by Mathias Goeritz done in 1952 (Figure 49).

It is hoped that these examples have sufficiently shown that coins through the ages keep company with the most renowned of art objects. They are not shy or tongue-tied if one understands their artistic language. One sees that coins forcefully speak of the artistic taste of those who created them - and those who spent them. As a mirror, coins brilliantly reflect the art of their period, the history of those who created them, and the taste of those who used them.

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