Coining Metaphors

The language of art history is a fascinating field of study. What metaphors and stylistic devices were used by art historians in order to describe such art historical phenomena as image-circulation, artistic transmission, or influence? One set of metaphors that remains to be researched is metaphors stemming from the field of numismatics and coinage. Aby Warburg used significant metaphors stemming from the realm of coinage and minting in order to describe processes of influence and ‘cultural imprints’. In the introduction to Mnemosyne, for example, he wrote of the “Prägewerk, das die Ausdruckswerte heidnischer Ergriffenheit münzt” (the mint, which coins the expressive values of pagan emotion). The ‘pathos-formula’ underlying Western image production is in Warburg’s language thus, quite literally, coined.

This photograph from the Warburg Institute Photographic Collection, shows a modern medallion. The design on it appears to depict mint workers strikig coinage and was possibly inspired by Roman coins with images of minting activity struck onto them.

This photograph from the Warburg Institute Photographic Collection, shows a modern medallion. The design on it appears to depict mint workers strikig coinage and was possibly inspired by Roman coins with images of minting activity struck onto them.

Similar theories and formulations can be found in earlier centuries, too. Pierre d’Hancarville, a French antiquary working mainly for British patrons, for example, claimed that the origin of images lay in the imprints made by so-called thunderbolts. These items, which he considered to be petrified lightning, but which were actually prehistoric handaxes, were interpreted by d’Hancarville as the initial points of an ongoing history of replication. (Fora more grounded explanation of these objects see the British Museum ‚Highlights‘ page on the Olduvai Handaxe.) This interpretation of art, focused on the striking of imprints as a means of transmission also had a significant role for coins. Even modern artworks, he wrote, are connected by a “secret influence” to the first artworks of primitive times.

Lower Palaeolithic stone handaxe, believed by d'Hancarville to have derived from lightning striking the earth.

Lower Palaeolithic stone handaxe, believed by d’Hancarville to have derived from lightning striking the earth.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that art historians describing migratory processes of imagery fall for metaphors and vocabulary from the realm of coinage, as the on-going reproduction, distribution and circulation of coins seem to be ideally suited for describing the circulation of images.


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