Coin-Making and Medallic Art

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Coin-Making and Medallic Art


the arts of making coins and medals; special branches of the plastic arts, related to glyptic. Coins and medals are made from various metals (copper, silver, gold), which because of their relative strength and malleability make it possible to fashion clear, small-figured depictions.

True coinage originated in Lydia and ancient Greece in the late eighth and seventh centuries B.C. The production of medals and coins is governed by the basic stylistic principles of the plastic arts. However, medals and coins also have a number of distinctive features, such as conventional iconography and compositional devices, which result fromt he necessity of inscribing an image within a given form (primarily circular) and of achieving compositional unity of image and inscription. A clear and concise representation is sought so that the image is easily understood. Symbols, emblems, and allegorical images are widely used.

Ancient coinage was produced primarily by dies of tempered metal with designs in intaglio. More rarely, and primarily in the production of large coins, dies were cast in clay or plaster molds (Italic coins of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.). Archaic Greek coins (seventh and sixth centuries B.C.), made of electrum and silver, are small and one-sided. The reliefs of animals or animal heads on these coins have a fine finish and are concise, stylized, and decorative. During the classical period (fifth and fourth centuries B.C.) larger coins were produced, with the heads of deities in profile on the obverse and many-figured compositions on mythological themes on the reverse. In Syracuse at the end of the fifth century B.C., coins were minted with frontal and three-quarter representations of the heads of deities.

The most magnificent ancient Greek coins were those struck in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. in cities in Sicily and Magna Graecia. Some of them were signed by the engravers Cimon (Kimon), Euaenetus, and Theodat. These coins are characterized by a simplicity of composition, clarity of image, softness in the gradation of relief, and meticulous treatment of detail. It was during the Hellenistic period, from the end of the fourth century B.C. to the first century B.C., that the portraits of rulers first appeared on the obverse of coins; figures of deities were framed within inscriptions on the reverse. In addition to idealized portraits (coinage of Alexander the Great), lifelike representations are encountered (coinage of Pontus and Bactria). The coinage of Parthia and that of the Sassanids (from the second century B.C. to the seventh century A.D.) are characterized by idealized portraits of the king combined with a bizarre ornamental rendering of the royal attributes (clothing and crowns).

In ancient Rome large cast coins of copper issued in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. were replaced during the third century B.C. by die-struck silver denarii, depicting the head of Roma (the goddess of the city of Rome) on the obverse and the Dioscuri on the reverse. Subsequently, Roman coins not only depicted deities but also portrayed complex mythological scenes, statues, and temples. During the imperial period (first to fifth centuries A.D.) gold coins were widespread, and a new type of coin depicting the emperor or his family within a circular inscription was issued. On the reverse, along with deities and allegorical scenes, there are representations of triumphs and scenes of sacrificial offerings. The low-relief profile busts of emperors are marked by the rendering of the most characteristic features and by the meticulous modeling of form. Artistically these coins are equal in quality to Roman sculpture in the round. Elements of schematism and graphic conventionality, first noted in ancient Roman coins in the early third century A.D., became more pronounced in Byzantine coinage. Abstract, stylized portraits of the Byzantine emperors were combined with Christian symbols, and beginning in the seventh century Christ, the Virgin Mary, and various saints were depicted.

Medieval Western European coins attest to a decline in the art. From the ninth to the 12th century small silver coins (deniers) with flat portraits depicting cathedrals and saints were widespread. These coins exhibit vestiges of Roman and Byzantine traditions. Meticulousness and refinement characterize Bohemian deniers issued in the 12th century. In Italy circa 1231 gold augustales depicting the emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen were struck in the style of Roman coins. The thin, one-sided silver coins (bracteates) that were used in Central Europe from the late 12th to the early 14th century most frequently show a great range of simple heraldic images. Some German bracteates show a feudal lord on a throne, a warrior-knight, or views of cities and monasteries and are distinguished by the complexity and refined low-relief rendering of images and inscriptions.

The earliest issued coins of the Muslim East (coins of the Omayyads from the seventh and eighth centuries A.D.) were based on Byzantine and Sassanid models. However, silver coins with refined, calligraphic inscriptions that formed ornamental compositions subsequently became widespread there. In China, beginning in the eighth century B.C., cast copper coins in the form of real objects (hoes, knives, and keys) were circulated. In medieval China round coins with square holes in the center and hieroglyphic inscriptions were widespead.

Medals, that is, metal tokens without any purchasing power, first appeared in Italy in the late 14th and 15th centuries. The portrait on the obverse of these Italian medals, reflecting the influence of ancient coinage, served to immortalize a particular person. The medals, which were primarily cast, usually have emblems and allegorical images on the reverse that comment upon the person depicted in the obverse portrait. The best Italian medals are distinguished by the austere simplicity of composition, soft generalization of modeling, and free spatial arrangement of figures, which were organically linked with the surface. Among the medalists of the Italian Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries) were Pisanello, Matteo de’ Pasti, Niccolo Fiorentino, Sperandio Savelli, C. di Geremia, L. Leoni, and B. Cellini. Some of these medalists made dies for minting coins.

Sixteenth-century German medals constitute a virtual gallery of lifelike portraits of kings, dukes, bishops, and burghers. Influenced by the Reformation, German medalists often depicted religious and allegorical scenes. In France, medals in the Renaissance style were designed by E. De Laune and G. Pilon. In Europe from the 16th to the 18th century the predominant coin was the taler, a large silver coin that usually bears the portrait of a ruler and a state emblem. There were also special issues of coins (primarily in Germany), with complex, multiplanar depictions of battle scenes, views of cities, individual buildings, coronation scenes, and propagandistic images (for example, the antipapal coins issued by Protestant princes).

During the 17th and 18th centuries coins often resembled medals. Seventeenth-century metallurgical achievements made possible the manufacture of harder steel dies, resulting in the flourishing of die-engraving. Subsequently, it was possible to mint large quantities of coins and medals, filling them with minute details. The distinctive characteristics of 17th-century French medals, which are frequently marked by baroque elements, include lavish representation, lifelike portraiture, and a meticulous rendering of detail (J. Warm, G. Dupré, P. Regnier). Seventeenth-century German and Polish medals are marked by detailed compositions filled with minute figures (J. Höhn and S. Dadler).

During the 18th century, when the issue of medals was totally under state control and took place in the courts of monarchs, medalists lost their creative independence. The medals often took on an official character and were overloaded with allegorical and emblematic symbolism. At the same time, the medal’s historical and commemorative functions were intensified, and medal series came into being (J. Manger and J. Duvivier in France; F. H. Müller in Germany).

In the early 19th century medallic art was influenced by the Empire style; this influence was expressed in the search for simple and austere artistic devices (B. Andrieu and N. Brenet in France; B. Pistrucci in England; H. Kristensen in Denmark). At the beginning of the century, some artists, such as P. J. David in France, introduced elements of romanticism into their medals, using picturesque modeling and imparting to the images an inner excitement. The artistic expressiveness of coins declined during the 19th century because of the mechanization of minting and the standardization of coinage types. Nevertheless, the invention of the die-engraving machine made it possible to copy sculptured models, thus broadening the artistic possibilities of medalists.

At the turn of the 20th century a number of medalists (F. Ponscarme, J. Chaplain, and O. Roty in France; A. Scharff in Austria), influenced by impressionism, sought new means of expression and were interested in soft modeling and the play of light and shade. During the 20th century, experiments in medallic art increased. Medalists turned to textural and picturesque effects, using sunk relief, incised contours, niello, and enamels, and resorted to dynamic asymmetrical compositions. Elements of cubism and expressionism appeared in medals. New techniques have also been introduced in the minting of coins.

Noteworthy European medalists include A. L. Galtié, R. Delamar, G. Lay, and A. J. Adam in France; D. Ledel in Belgium; O. Španiel, J. T. Fischer, J. Prádler, R. Přibiš, and J. Kulich in Czechoslovakia; and E. Kopczyński, B. Chromy, Z. Demkovska, and W. Kowalik in Poland. The best contemporary European commemorative medals are marked by textural expressiveness, conciseness and sharpness of composition, and vivid, socially relevant images.

Russian coin-making originated in the tenth century in Kievan Rus’. The first Russian medals, which were made at the turn of the 18th century, were dedicated to the military victories of the Russian state. Russian medal-making reached the height of its development during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in the period of classicism. The medalists S. Iu. ludin, T. I. Ivanov, K. A. Leberekht, A. A. Klepikov, A. P. Lialin, and P. P. Utkin depicted Russia’s most important historical events, its great generals, and its leaders in science and culture. An austere simplicity of composition and modeling, as well as excellent technical execution, characterize the medals of F. P. Tolstoi. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Russian medal-making, which was under the administration of the tsarist court, increasingly expressed reactionary ideas and went into a decline.

Soviet medalists of the 1920’s and 1930’s, such as A. F. Vasiutinskii, N. A. Sokolov, D. K. Stepanov, S. A. Martynov, and I. I. Tsygankov, attempted to revive medallic art, to discover a new artistic vocabulary, and to express the spirit of the age. Their works, dedicated to the heroes and events of the October Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War of 1918-20, are marked by simplicity of composition, poster-like elements, and documentary depiction. The Great Patriotic War (1941-45) temporarily halted the production of commemorative medals. Since the 1950’s commemorative medals have been issued on a regular basis. In 1955 the Council on Commemorative and Anniversary Medals was created under the administration of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR. In 1971 the first All-Union Exhibition of Medallic Art was held.

The best Soviet medals have been designed by V. M. Akimushkin, N. N. Akimushkin, E. Amashukeli, L. M. Belokurov, I. A. Daragan, A. A. Zaile, A. G. Knorre, A. A. Koroliuk, P. V. Mel’nikova, Iu. G. Neroda, P. Rimsha, I. M. Rukavishnikov, S. L. Tul’chinskii, and M. A. Shmakov. These medals commemorate the historical events of the CPSU and the Soviet state, the achievements of building communism and of space exploration, and the anniversaries of institutions and of party, government, scientific, and cultural leaders. They are marked by romantic and lofty images, bold and sharp composition, expressive and generalized modeling, and a diversity of technical devices and artistic styles.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.