Image and Art on Medieval Coinage

Image and Art on Medieval Coinage

By Alan M. Stahl

From Minor to Major: The Minor Arts in Medieval Art History, edited by Colum Hourihane (Princeton, 2012)

Pile of English coins – photo by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr

Introduction: In its physical dimension, no object of medieval material culture was more minor than coinage. The technical demands of die engraving, as well as the necessity of producing tens of thousands, even millions, of identical objects contributed to the formulaic nature of its appearance. As the value of a coin often rested on its recognition as the official issue of a respected minting authority, repetition of imagery was generally more important than variety in the production of a successful issue.

On the other hand, coinage constituted the most widely disseminated set of images throughout all levels of the populace and for most people represented the only visual representation of political authority they were likely to encounter on a regular basis. References in medieval literature to the appearance of widely circulating issues confirm the importance of this consistent coin imagery in popular culture.

There is no question that coinage was a major part of the visual material world of the Middle Ages. Whether that qualifies it as a major art form, or an art form at all, begs the distinction between material culture and art, one that is at least as problematical as that between minor and major art forms.

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