The Devil (Beauty) is in the Details

The Amazingly Intricate Detail on Ancient Coins

I am always amazed at the level of the art that appears on ancient coins, especially that of the celators of the ancient Greek City States. I am a carver myself (Carving is actually the opposite of engraving. In carving you work in negative space; that is, you never touch the finished piece. You remove everything that will not be part of the art. In engraving, you totally remove the image you are working with.) Engraving incuse or reversed images into hardened metal with details measured in millimeters is a skill that is lost to us today. Skilled engravers today have the luxury of magnification devices and mini-rotary tools with diamond bits. I recently asked jewelers on a listsrv whether they could reproduce dies given the tools available in antiquity. There was no consensus, but all agreed that it would be extremely difficult. Some form of rotary drill used with a slurry or paste made of gem dust could accomplish the basic engraving. Further "sanding" and polishing could refine the image. How these celators accomplished the minute detail without magnification is a mystery. At the least, one qualification of being a celator was extreme myopia. Another thing for certain is that Greek celators reached a degree of art in their work with die and intaglio engraving not equaled until the renaissance - and some would say it has never been equaled. The history of engraving goes far back to the days of the Sumerians. Clay seals were developed as a way of producing correct images. This probably led to the production of intaglio gemstones used in jewelry that also served as seals. It was probably the Greek intaglio workers who were drafted into the die making business.

This page is a true celebration of the Celator's art. I will post some images of details appearing on Greek coins that exhibit a sophistication in art or detail (more a mastery of craft). The images on these pages will link to fairly large jpg images. links in the text will take you to images of the complete coin.

The first image is from the reverse of a Myrina, Tetradrachm. I find several elements interesting in this design. The most compelling is the use of perspective. At Apollo's feet, an omphalos, amphora, and flowering plant are stepped back providing a sense of depth to the scene. the omphalos and the base of the amphora overlap adding to that. Although the celator has depicted Apollo with only 4 toes on his right foot (ok, they weren't perfect), the robes cling to this leg which is raised and at a 90° angle to his front foot. in the background there is a hint of the robes coming down from the back. This attention to minute detail is often seen on Greek coins.

The second coin is from Macedon and the Quaestor Aesillas during the time of Roman rule. Alexander is depicted in fine style with flowing hair. Directly behind and probably meant to be a hair adornment is a tiny rose no larger than 2 millimeters. Alexander's Hair is done on three levels which adds to the illusion of depth. Much was accomplished by the high relief. Light striking at different angles would change the appearance of the coin. merely moving the coin around in hand would accomplish this. The three levels would make this effect more pronounced.

Many Greek coins including Corinthian staters, Calabrian nomoi, and new-style Athenian tetradrachms carry a variety of small control marks in the fields of the flans. These range from elephants to plants to insects and tell us a great deal about what these Greeks held in high esteem. On this Calabrian stater of Tarsos, a floating head of a nymph appears to the right of the city founder Taras riding a dolphin. The head is about 5 mm wide and is complete with attractive facial features and the hair pulled back and tied. She also sports beautiful teardrop earrings. The detail on Taras is also remarkable. His hair is also tied and his facial features are clear down to distinct lips. What I find most remarkable is his physique especially the clarity of his hip bone. He also has a clearly defined belly button that could possibly support lint. That is attention to detail!

The Greeks also were skilled naturalists and often depicted very realistic, detailed images of animals on their coins. My carving instructor taught me never to carve a "dumb" animal. That is, depict an animal in an action pose that shows sensitivity to its nature. The teachers of the celators must have made the same admonition to their pupils. Thus, we see the horses of Carthage with their head turned looking straight at the owner,horses of Larissa depicted ready to roll and even the goats of Kelenderis are kneeling and looking back at some unseen sight off of the coin. These action scenes are depicted on coins across the Mediterranean. One of many exceptions to the "dumb animal" rule would be with animals that were rarely seen (there are some strange looking elephants) or with animals that were difficult to see. The anatomically accurate bees on coins of Ephesos fall into this latter category. In an age without microscopes the accurate depiction of the bee must have been fascinating to the citizens of that great city. The lobed eyes, feelers, and segmented legs and body were extremely well executed and mark a rare occasion where the scale of the animal is actually enlarged on the coin.

On the reverse of the same coin is a depiction of the forepart of a stag looking backwards with a date palm ready to harvest behind. The illusion produced here is of a stag running from behind the palm while looking back at a possible predator. Having the stag looking back takes the viewers eyes and mind off of the coin to imagine what the animal is looking at. The antlers and hooves are delicately and accurately rendered.

The next coin, from Paeonia, illustrates the beauty of the horse coupled with information about the Greek cavalryman. The horse is rendered in fine style with the muscles in the head, neck, and legs clearly defined. The mane of the horse is cut short and is delicately engraved. The bridle, harness, and what could be armor for the horse are clearly illustrated. The Greeks did not have the benefit of saddles or buckles for their tack equipment. In Ancient Greek Horsemanship, J.K. Anderson describes several items illustrated on this coin. The Ancient Greek bridle was simple, consisting of cheekpieces, a noseband, a throatlatch, and sometimes a browband. The horse could be armored on the forehead, chest, and flanks. The latter seems to be present here and the "spikey" looking thing directly above the horse's head might be the top of a piece of forehead armor (although the rider would be in danger if the horse tossed its head back). The Greeks also used a fairly cruel bit, often containing spikes, that tended to keep the horse's head raised as in this image. The armor of the rider is also clearly defined. The pteryges, the pleated armor around the hips and groin, the breast plate, and the greaves on his legs are apparent and he is wearing an ornate, plumed helmet. The lance appears to have protuberances about 1/3 of the way down the shaft possibly serving to keep the hand from simply sliding down the shaft when spearing, although he apparently is not making use of them in this scene. All in all a very interesting battle scene with much associated information.

The art of the celator was said to reach its height during the classical period generally considered to be more or less from the late 5th to late 4th centuries. Thereafter, there was a gradual, decline in the qualtity (if you consider realism as the ultimate goal of the celator, and then again there were fine quality coins made later on by the Greeks). In this coin of Antiochos VIII one can see a mix of fine and not so fine styles. The lettering is by no means subtle. The round dots on the end points of the letters (and on the border) were obviously made with drills and then a connect-the-dot process was used on the lines. The torso of Zeus is very well engraved and the belly button is once again prominent The arms on these later Seleukid issues are often poorly done and are often elongated to connect the torso to the nearest field on the left in which the sun can be pictured. The fingers on the right hand actually are detached. Zeus' garment clings to the left leg which is out from the body making the kneecap visible. The folds here do not have the realism that appear on earlier coins although the roll around the midriff is done very well and the perspective is admirable. The folds below the waist look fairly good when viewed from afar, but are rather crude when viewed up close. The folds on the piece that is folded over the shoulder and draping down are represented by a simple zig zag design that does not do justice at all to the effect the celator wanted to achieve. What is still remarkable here is the posture of Zeus. His weight rests totally on his right leg as he supports himself on his spear. His right hip juts to the right and he takes on a pose of nonchalance or effortlessness even though he supports the weight of the sun in his hand. While the reverse of this coin gets mixed reviews, the obverse has one of the best portraits in my entire collection.

The Eyes Have It:

The two areas of the body that give artists the most difficulty are the face and the hands. John Singer Sargent underscored an aspect of this artistic challenge when he defined portraits thusly: "A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth." Nevertheless, Greek celators became masters (more or less) of engraving facial features into their dies. Catching the realism in the features of the face became one of the trademarks of the master engravers of Syracuse, southern Italy, and the Seleukid Empire (and in Roman times the coins of Trajan and Hadrian took on a realism that rivaled the best of the Greeks). When working in relief however, exaggeration of features is often required to get the required effect when viewed from arm's reach; much in the same manner as theatrical make up may look over done close up, but looks appropriate from the audience. One can see this in the treatment of the eyelids which tended to be thicker than normal (especially in facing heads). The photos that follow are close ups of the treatment given to eyes and features of the front of the face on select Greek coins. There seems to have been three ways to depict the pupil: a) A blank disk; b) incuse pupil; and c) raised pupil. Coin 1 is from Istros and the incuse method is used. The same is true of coin 8 from Larissa of the facing nymph (although working from a small sample, I wonder if this is not the preferred method on facing heads?). This method probably was the most technically difficult as the area around the pupil in the die would have to be removed - as opposed to the raised pupil in which the reverse image in the die would merely need to be drilled. and smoothed. The eye of the Amazon Kyme in image 9 is rather interesting. The Iris is cup shaped with a small raised section in the middle and a raised line goint outward to the edge at 1 o'clock. This provides a stunningly realistic glint in her eye. Once again the play of shadows would have been a factor in determining which method to use. Obviously, the blank disk would have cast no shadows. The incuse method would have filled the pupil with darkness producing a realistic effect. Interestingly, the raised pupil would have produced a somewhat similar effect as the daylight would have produced a highlight around the raised area rather than producing an elongated, one-directional shadow as one might see it in candlelight. For these photos the main light source was set to the left of the coin. This resulted in a shadow outline, usually under the pupil with a bright spot on the raised pupil a very pleasing effect This is the method used in the portraits of Antiochos VIII on Coin 2, Antiochos VII in coin 3, Alexander - coin 4, and Apollo on coins 5, and 6. On the coins of the Antiochos' and Lysimachos there is a much more realistic rendering of the eyelids which are mere slivers compared to the previous coin. It is interesting to compare the eyes on coins 1 and 5. On coin 5, the eyelids overlap into the nose. This is almost a cross between the archaic style, where the eye was represented fully on the side of the head, and the later classical realism. The three quarter profile shown in the Istros coin was difficult to render. Here for the right eye, the Celator only engraved the far part of the eyelid. Even though there was room for more of the eyelid, the celator understood that this technique would accentuate the off-center facing effect. The structure of the cheekbone was addressed on all of these coins, although it was minimized on the facing images of Helios ( 7) and Larissa (8) [giving her the chubby full-faced appearnace] and taken to a sophisticated level on the coin of Lysimachos (4). This latter coin and the coin of Myrina (6) are the only ones that address the extended eye ball and socket beneath the lower eye lid.

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