The opportunity to share perspectives and ideas with colleagues pursuing very different research topics is one of the privileges of working in the ‘Bilderfahrzeuge’ group, and this post continues one such conversation, begun in an earlier contribution by Hans-Christian. In it he talks about the idea of using metaphors derived from the language of minting coins in describing art history. It got me thinking about a category of image with which I have long been familiar: things which were produced as works of art/illustration and made in some way to look like coins. These objects were often also mass-produced and widely circulated, though in very different ways to coins, and had no fixed economic value. Why, then, have they been so popular and what authority do they gain from looking like coins?
Images made to look like coins became popular during the Renaissance, and are most often encountered as medals (round, metal objects cast or stamped with a commemorative image) or drawings imitating some of the features of coins. Perhaps one of the most famous medals, and a useful thinking point for this post is that featured above – designed by Pisanello and depicting the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos (1392-1448). It was designed to commemorate the emperor’s visit to Italy and the history of its production can be found in more detail here. It has become probably the most famous and enduring image of a Byzantine emperor, except perhaps the sixth-century mosaic image of the emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) at San Vitale in Ravenna.
The medal shows a poignant, almost fragile figure, an emperor travelling in the west primarily to plead for aid for his beleaguered capital city, which was to fall irrecoverably to the Ottoman forces of Mehmet II in 1453. The image on the reverse of John stopping at a roadside cross captures touchingly the displacement of Byzantine courtliness and ancient imperial tradition to the role of a roadside beggar. Pisanello, however, is also keen to emphasise the exotic otherness of this Christian monarch. His shaped beard and lavish headgear have become tropes of the ‘Oriental’ ruler. Indeed, it is highly reminiscent of Prof. Victor Stoichita’s lecture for this group on Bellini’s portrait of Mehmet II (1432-81), in which he discussed the significance of the Sultan’s equally excessive turban.
At around the same time, the advent of printing and woodcut technology popularised a similar use of ‘coin-like’ images in other contexts, especially in illustrating histories. In these cases the portraits were often entirely drawn from the artist’s imagination or were loosely based on coinage, but presented their subject in a roundel with a legend or surrounding inscription. This image, for example, depicts the Byzantine emperor Leo III (c. 685-741) and his son, Constantine (later the emperor Constantine V, 718-775), including an inscription which imitates though is not identical to those found on Byzantine coins.
The use of coin-like imagery and image framing seems to have lent these depictions a validity which simply a portrait on canvas in the case of John VIII, or an imagined likeness, as in the case of Leo III and Constantine, would not. By evoking coinage they seem to suggest the officially-regulated, ‘live’ portraiture on coins which in the pre-modern world might be the closest most people ever got to an image of their ruler, bringing the viewer closer to the subject, while simultaneously emphasising the status of that subject. What is particularly interesting about these examples, however, is that these emperors had coinage of their own: they were producing their own live portraits and presenting them to the world.
In the case of John VIII, whose coinage reflects all too clearly the ongoing troubles of the Byzantine government and economy, it is perhaps easy to see why Pisanello’s vision circulated better in the courts and fashionable circles of western Europe. Leo and Constantine’s portrait (above), too, though more similar to their coinage, clearly suited the western Renaissance aesthetic better.
Without the tradition of coinage, which Byzantium, like western Europe, had inherited from the Roman Empire these new depictions would not have resonated in the way that they did. Coins are not inevitably emblems of state power but in the Mediterranean tradition they could be nothing else. An interest in Roman coins paralleled an interest in Roman history, a re-use of classical texts and objects that projected western Europe’s burgeoning confidence, derived in large part from its growing wealth. However, rejection of the imagery of actual coinage in favour of a sterilised, beautified representation also reflected the recognition of a new economy of circulation in which woodcuts and medals were two forms of a newly-struck currency of images linking the educated elites of the west. Just as the Roman senatorial elite had in large part been bound by a shared participation in literary culture, the increasing accessibility of classical learning, as a result of book printing and the aspirations of the newly-prosperous to acquire the prestige of education required a new negotiation of cultural authority. Its clearest expression may be in the woodcut medal used to accompany an early French translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. The vernacular translation of a Greek text from the 1st/2nd century A.D., which brought together figures from the Hellenistic and Roman past to offer moral lessons on fame and virtue was illsutrated with a fictional portrait of a man who had never appeared on coins – an authority from the distant past circulating as a lesson on behaviour for a dyamic and confusing present.
The continued use of coinage and the Roman past as an emblem of tradition, a source of authority and often a mask for change can be explored in more detail in the exhibition ‘Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture’ opening at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham on 27th February (until January 2016). The exhibition replaces my curatorial debut at the Barber Institute (‘Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage’) and showcases even more of the Barber’s large and important collection of Roman, Byzantine and eastern medieval coinage.