Pocket-Sized Pieces of History

Andrieu_Napolon Abdication_B_Tight Crop Steve Scher PhotoCara/Andrea here, and today I am musing on an often overlooked genre of art—the portrait and commemorative medal, or medallion—which can offer a unique and fascinating perspective on history. The inspiration comes from a podcast done by a good friend of mine, Dr. Stephen Scher, in conjunction with the recent wonderful exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery on “The Critique of Reason—Romantic Art from 1760-1860.

Andrieu_Bernard Passage_B_Tight Crop_0Steve possesses one of the finest collections in the world of Renaissance medallions (and a notable array of Regency-era medallions) and he is an expert in the field. (His impressive career in art includes serving as the Chairman of the Art History department at Brown University and a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC.) I found his short talk on Napoleon and his use of the medium for “propaganda” so engaging that I thought all of you would enjoy it too!

Andrieu_School of Mines_B_Tight CropBut first, a bit of background on the art of the medallion.  Strictly speaking, a medallion is round object that has been cast, sculpted, stamped or otherwise formed—usually out of some form of metal— with an image or words. The “main” side is called the obverse, and the “back” side is called the reverse. While some smaller medallions are meant to be worn, the genre about which I’m discussing are often referred to as “table medals.” They are usually 3-4 inches in diameter, and despite their small size, can speak volumes about the era in which they were created.

H2_1988.133According to Wikipedia, the first known medallion was awarded by Alexander the Great to High Priest Jonathan of the Hebrews in thanks for his military aid. Roman and Medieval times saw the art flourish, with rulers and influential people in society commissioning these small works of art to give as gifts to friends and political allies.
Pisanello.pgBut it was during the Italian Renaissance that the art form rose to new heights. Prominent artists of the era created many exquisite images for their patrons, both portraits, which convey a great deal about the personality and sense of importance of the subject, and allegorical scenes, which also give a fascinating look at the subtle messages of power and political jockeying that lay beneath the surface.

DelacroixThe early 1800s saw a resurgence in the art of the medallion. Napoleon understood how what a useful propaganda medium it was and used the notable artist Jean-Louis David to spread his messages across Europe. David is credited with being the foremost practitioner of the time, and after the fall of the Emperor he turned out a large array of ‘celebrity” portraits of the era—including Alexandre Dumas and Eugene Delacroix—which were very popular collectibles among the fashionable set.

Trafalgar 2 Britain also struck its fair share of medallions. A famous example is the commemorative one given to all the sailors who participated in the Battle of Trafalgar. And following suit in the celebrity field, the Art Union League of London commissioned a set of 29 bronze medallions depicting well-known British artists and architects, including William Hogarth.

I Trafalgar hope you enjoy Steve’s podcast. He’s opened my eyes to the beauty of medallions. I love the detailed artistry, and if I had deep pockets, I’d love to collect some of the Regency-era one done by David. What about you? Do you like them? If you could collect anything, what it be? Antique cameos? Fountain pens? Baseball cards? Please share!

50 thoughts on “Pocket-Sized Pieces of History”

  1. Without actually meaning to, I seem to have a bit of a collection of these. Most are nowhere near as old or impressive as your friend’s, but it is an interesting – and easy to transport! – souvenir when travelling.
    There are some antique shops near the British Museum in London that I’ve picked up a few things in, and when Australia celebrated its Bicentenary in 1988 every school child received one.
    I also have spent a lot of time in the former USSR (particularly Ukraine) and they used to crank out those medallions for pretty much every event! Now they sell very cheaply, so I have more than I could ever need.
    Now, off to listen…

    Reply
  2. Without actually meaning to, I seem to have a bit of a collection of these. Most are nowhere near as old or impressive as your friend’s, but it is an interesting – and easy to transport! – souvenir when travelling.
    There are some antique shops near the British Museum in London that I’ve picked up a few things in, and when Australia celebrated its Bicentenary in 1988 every school child received one.
    I also have spent a lot of time in the former USSR (particularly Ukraine) and they used to crank out those medallions for pretty much every event! Now they sell very cheaply, so I have more than I could ever need.
    Now, off to listen…

    Reply
  3. Without actually meaning to, I seem to have a bit of a collection of these. Most are nowhere near as old or impressive as your friend’s, but it is an interesting – and easy to transport! – souvenir when travelling.
    There are some antique shops near the British Museum in London that I’ve picked up a few things in, and when Australia celebrated its Bicentenary in 1988 every school child received one.
    I also have spent a lot of time in the former USSR (particularly Ukraine) and they used to crank out those medallions for pretty much every event! Now they sell very cheaply, so I have more than I could ever need.
    Now, off to listen…

    Reply
  4. Without actually meaning to, I seem to have a bit of a collection of these. Most are nowhere near as old or impressive as your friend’s, but it is an interesting – and easy to transport! – souvenir when travelling.
    There are some antique shops near the British Museum in London that I’ve picked up a few things in, and when Australia celebrated its Bicentenary in 1988 every school child received one.
    I also have spent a lot of time in the former USSR (particularly Ukraine) and they used to crank out those medallions for pretty much every event! Now they sell very cheaply, so I have more than I could ever need.
    Now, off to listen…

    Reply
  5. Without actually meaning to, I seem to have a bit of a collection of these. Most are nowhere near as old or impressive as your friend’s, but it is an interesting – and easy to transport! – souvenir when travelling.
    There are some antique shops near the British Museum in London that I’ve picked up a few things in, and when Australia celebrated its Bicentenary in 1988 every school child received one.
    I also have spent a lot of time in the former USSR (particularly Ukraine) and they used to crank out those medallions for pretty much every event! Now they sell very cheaply, so I have more than I could ever need.
    Now, off to listen…

    Reply
  6. What an interesting post! I only realised the significance of medallions relatively recently when I was researching a book about Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, set in the 17th century. She was considered to be a heroine of the Protestant cause in Europe at the time and had many medallions struck to rally support and use as propaganda. Fascinating stuff.

    Reply
  7. What an interesting post! I only realised the significance of medallions relatively recently when I was researching a book about Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, set in the 17th century. She was considered to be a heroine of the Protestant cause in Europe at the time and had many medallions struck to rally support and use as propaganda. Fascinating stuff.

    Reply
  8. What an interesting post! I only realised the significance of medallions relatively recently when I was researching a book about Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, set in the 17th century. She was considered to be a heroine of the Protestant cause in Europe at the time and had many medallions struck to rally support and use as propaganda. Fascinating stuff.

    Reply
  9. What an interesting post! I only realised the significance of medallions relatively recently when I was researching a book about Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, set in the 17th century. She was considered to be a heroine of the Protestant cause in Europe at the time and had many medallions struck to rally support and use as propaganda. Fascinating stuff.

    Reply
  10. What an interesting post! I only realised the significance of medallions relatively recently when I was researching a book about Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, set in the 17th century. She was considered to be a heroine of the Protestant cause in Europe at the time and had many medallions struck to rally support and use as propaganda. Fascinating stuff.

    Reply
  11. Sonya, how fun that you’ve collected medallions! I must prowl through those shops near the British Museum next time I get to London! And how fascinating that you have some USSR examples. Now that Steve has gotten me interested in the artform, I’m much more aware of how it’s been used by so many governments as “propaganda” forms, He recently showed me some German WWI medallions, which were made of iron because precious metals were too valuable to use. Very poignant images of sacrifice and valor. And again, they brought home what an amzing story medallions tell about history.

    Reply
  12. Sonya, how fun that you’ve collected medallions! I must prowl through those shops near the British Museum next time I get to London! And how fascinating that you have some USSR examples. Now that Steve has gotten me interested in the artform, I’m much more aware of how it’s been used by so many governments as “propaganda” forms, He recently showed me some German WWI medallions, which were made of iron because precious metals were too valuable to use. Very poignant images of sacrifice and valor. And again, they brought home what an amzing story medallions tell about history.

    Reply
  13. Sonya, how fun that you’ve collected medallions! I must prowl through those shops near the British Museum next time I get to London! And how fascinating that you have some USSR examples. Now that Steve has gotten me interested in the artform, I’m much more aware of how it’s been used by so many governments as “propaganda” forms, He recently showed me some German WWI medallions, which were made of iron because precious metals were too valuable to use. Very poignant images of sacrifice and valor. And again, they brought home what an amzing story medallions tell about history.

    Reply
  14. Sonya, how fun that you’ve collected medallions! I must prowl through those shops near the British Museum next time I get to London! And how fascinating that you have some USSR examples. Now that Steve has gotten me interested in the artform, I’m much more aware of how it’s been used by so many governments as “propaganda” forms, He recently showed me some German WWI medallions, which were made of iron because precious metals were too valuable to use. Very poignant images of sacrifice and valor. And again, they brought home what an amzing story medallions tell about history.

    Reply
  15. Sonya, how fun that you’ve collected medallions! I must prowl through those shops near the British Museum next time I get to London! And how fascinating that you have some USSR examples. Now that Steve has gotten me interested in the artform, I’m much more aware of how it’s been used by so many governments as “propaganda” forms, He recently showed me some German WWI medallions, which were made of iron because precious metals were too valuable to use. Very poignant images of sacrifice and valor. And again, they brought home what an amzing story medallions tell about history.

    Reply
  16. So glad you enjoyed it, Nicola. Now that Steve has pointed out what a wonderful view into history medallions offer, I’m having a fun time looking at examples on line. It’s so interesting to discover new insights like this, isn’t it! History is so endlessly fascinating!

    Reply
  17. So glad you enjoyed it, Nicola. Now that Steve has pointed out what a wonderful view into history medallions offer, I’m having a fun time looking at examples on line. It’s so interesting to discover new insights like this, isn’t it! History is so endlessly fascinating!

    Reply
  18. So glad you enjoyed it, Nicola. Now that Steve has pointed out what a wonderful view into history medallions offer, I’m having a fun time looking at examples on line. It’s so interesting to discover new insights like this, isn’t it! History is so endlessly fascinating!

    Reply
  19. So glad you enjoyed it, Nicola. Now that Steve has pointed out what a wonderful view into history medallions offer, I’m having a fun time looking at examples on line. It’s so interesting to discover new insights like this, isn’t it! History is so endlessly fascinating!

    Reply
  20. So glad you enjoyed it, Nicola. Now that Steve has pointed out what a wonderful view into history medallions offer, I’m having a fun time looking at examples on line. It’s so interesting to discover new insights like this, isn’t it! History is so endlessly fascinating!

    Reply
  21. Cara/Andrea, this is fascinating! I knew nothing of the history of medallions, but now I can see their power, both artistic and political. I’ve always loved David’s painting style, but hadn’t a clue about his medallion work. I suspect the Trafalgar medallion might have helped give rise to military medals, which arose about that time, I think.

    Reply
  22. Cara/Andrea, this is fascinating! I knew nothing of the history of medallions, but now I can see their power, both artistic and political. I’ve always loved David’s painting style, but hadn’t a clue about his medallion work. I suspect the Trafalgar medallion might have helped give rise to military medals, which arose about that time, I think.

    Reply
  23. Cara/Andrea, this is fascinating! I knew nothing of the history of medallions, but now I can see their power, both artistic and political. I’ve always loved David’s painting style, but hadn’t a clue about his medallion work. I suspect the Trafalgar medallion might have helped give rise to military medals, which arose about that time, I think.

    Reply
  24. Cara/Andrea, this is fascinating! I knew nothing of the history of medallions, but now I can see their power, both artistic and political. I’ve always loved David’s painting style, but hadn’t a clue about his medallion work. I suspect the Trafalgar medallion might have helped give rise to military medals, which arose about that time, I think.

    Reply
  25. Cara/Andrea, this is fascinating! I knew nothing of the history of medallions, but now I can see their power, both artistic and political. I’ve always loved David’s painting style, but hadn’t a clue about his medallion work. I suspect the Trafalgar medallion might have helped give rise to military medals, which arose about that time, I think.

    Reply
  26. My quick research into the subject showed that military medals were awarded a lot by the Romans, but the real heyday, as you suspected, began in the Napoleonic Wars . . . some of the most famous medals. like the Legion d’ Honneur and the Iron Corss originated in the early 1800’s. The Waterloo medal was the first awarded to every participant in a battle, and that tradition then took hold for major battles. Military medals are a whole subject in themselves!

    Reply
  27. My quick research into the subject showed that military medals were awarded a lot by the Romans, but the real heyday, as you suspected, began in the Napoleonic Wars . . . some of the most famous medals. like the Legion d’ Honneur and the Iron Corss originated in the early 1800’s. The Waterloo medal was the first awarded to every participant in a battle, and that tradition then took hold for major battles. Military medals are a whole subject in themselves!

    Reply
  28. My quick research into the subject showed that military medals were awarded a lot by the Romans, but the real heyday, as you suspected, began in the Napoleonic Wars . . . some of the most famous medals. like the Legion d’ Honneur and the Iron Corss originated in the early 1800’s. The Waterloo medal was the first awarded to every participant in a battle, and that tradition then took hold for major battles. Military medals are a whole subject in themselves!

    Reply
  29. My quick research into the subject showed that military medals were awarded a lot by the Romans, but the real heyday, as you suspected, began in the Napoleonic Wars . . . some of the most famous medals. like the Legion d’ Honneur and the Iron Corss originated in the early 1800’s. The Waterloo medal was the first awarded to every participant in a battle, and that tradition then took hold for major battles. Military medals are a whole subject in themselves!

    Reply
  30. My quick research into the subject showed that military medals were awarded a lot by the Romans, but the real heyday, as you suspected, began in the Napoleonic Wars . . . some of the most famous medals. like the Legion d’ Honneur and the Iron Corss originated in the early 1800’s. The Waterloo medal was the first awarded to every participant in a battle, and that tradition then took hold for major battles. Military medals are a whole subject in themselves!

    Reply
  31. Thank you so much for this post. It has shown me a medium I was totally unaware of. Like Mary Jo, I knew of David’s paintings but not of his medallion work.

    Reply
  32. Thank you so much for this post. It has shown me a medium I was totally unaware of. Like Mary Jo, I knew of David’s paintings but not of his medallion work.

    Reply
  33. Thank you so much for this post. It has shown me a medium I was totally unaware of. Like Mary Jo, I knew of David’s paintings but not of his medallion work.

    Reply
  34. Thank you so much for this post. It has shown me a medium I was totally unaware of. Like Mary Jo, I knew of David’s paintings but not of his medallion work.

    Reply
  35. Thank you so much for this post. It has shown me a medium I was totally unaware of. Like Mary Jo, I knew of David’s paintings but not of his medallion work.

    Reply
  36. I’ve clicked on all your medallion examples and they are really lovely. I haven’t paid that much attention to medallions before now. However when I went to the Augustus Saint-Gaudens show at the Met, I found out that he first apprenticed with a cameo cutter. Besides the statues he is famous for, during his career he did a lot of bas-relief sculpture, commemorative medals, and designed the U.S. 10 and 20 dollar gold coins.

    Reply
  37. I’ve clicked on all your medallion examples and they are really lovely. I haven’t paid that much attention to medallions before now. However when I went to the Augustus Saint-Gaudens show at the Met, I found out that he first apprenticed with a cameo cutter. Besides the statues he is famous for, during his career he did a lot of bas-relief sculpture, commemorative medals, and designed the U.S. 10 and 20 dollar gold coins.

    Reply
  38. I’ve clicked on all your medallion examples and they are really lovely. I haven’t paid that much attention to medallions before now. However when I went to the Augustus Saint-Gaudens show at the Met, I found out that he first apprenticed with a cameo cutter. Besides the statues he is famous for, during his career he did a lot of bas-relief sculpture, commemorative medals, and designed the U.S. 10 and 20 dollar gold coins.

    Reply
  39. I’ve clicked on all your medallion examples and they are really lovely. I haven’t paid that much attention to medallions before now. However when I went to the Augustus Saint-Gaudens show at the Met, I found out that he first apprenticed with a cameo cutter. Besides the statues he is famous for, during his career he did a lot of bas-relief sculpture, commemorative medals, and designed the U.S. 10 and 20 dollar gold coins.

    Reply
  40. I’ve clicked on all your medallion examples and they are really lovely. I haven’t paid that much attention to medallions before now. However when I went to the Augustus Saint-Gaudens show at the Met, I found out that he first apprenticed with a cameo cutter. Besides the statues he is famous for, during his career he did a lot of bas-relief sculpture, commemorative medals, and designed the U.S. 10 and 20 dollar gold coins.

    Reply
  41. Very interesting item to collect, with the historical significance of each medallion. My own collection of choice (besides books, of course) is a cousin once removed: medallions -> metal paperweights -> glass paperweights. They sparkle, they’re intricate and colorful, they can be miniscule or door stop-sized, and if not always historical, they do have something to say about the cultures of their makers’ countries.
    However, the first glass paperweights appeared around 1848 in France. So if a Regency character picks one up in a meditative mood (as I once read), or tries to cosh an intruder with it—nuh, uh. Wrong era.
    Wish I could show you some of these miniature works of art, they’re amazing.

    Reply
  42. Very interesting item to collect, with the historical significance of each medallion. My own collection of choice (besides books, of course) is a cousin once removed: medallions -> metal paperweights -> glass paperweights. They sparkle, they’re intricate and colorful, they can be miniscule or door stop-sized, and if not always historical, they do have something to say about the cultures of their makers’ countries.
    However, the first glass paperweights appeared around 1848 in France. So if a Regency character picks one up in a meditative mood (as I once read), or tries to cosh an intruder with it—nuh, uh. Wrong era.
    Wish I could show you some of these miniature works of art, they’re amazing.

    Reply
  43. Very interesting item to collect, with the historical significance of each medallion. My own collection of choice (besides books, of course) is a cousin once removed: medallions -> metal paperweights -> glass paperweights. They sparkle, they’re intricate and colorful, they can be miniscule or door stop-sized, and if not always historical, they do have something to say about the cultures of their makers’ countries.
    However, the first glass paperweights appeared around 1848 in France. So if a Regency character picks one up in a meditative mood (as I once read), or tries to cosh an intruder with it—nuh, uh. Wrong era.
    Wish I could show you some of these miniature works of art, they’re amazing.

    Reply
  44. Very interesting item to collect, with the historical significance of each medallion. My own collection of choice (besides books, of course) is a cousin once removed: medallions -> metal paperweights -> glass paperweights. They sparkle, they’re intricate and colorful, they can be miniscule or door stop-sized, and if not always historical, they do have something to say about the cultures of their makers’ countries.
    However, the first glass paperweights appeared around 1848 in France. So if a Regency character picks one up in a meditative mood (as I once read), or tries to cosh an intruder with it—nuh, uh. Wrong era.
    Wish I could show you some of these miniature works of art, they’re amazing.

    Reply
  45. Very interesting item to collect, with the historical significance of each medallion. My own collection of choice (besides books, of course) is a cousin once removed: medallions -> metal paperweights -> glass paperweights. They sparkle, they’re intricate and colorful, they can be miniscule or door stop-sized, and if not always historical, they do have something to say about the cultures of their makers’ countries.
    However, the first glass paperweights appeared around 1848 in France. So if a Regency character picks one up in a meditative mood (as I once read), or tries to cosh an intruder with it—nuh, uh. Wrong era.
    Wish I could show you some of these miniature works of art, they’re amazing.

    Reply

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