Christ on Coins

Byzantine portraits of Jesus

Collectors of ancient coins frequently include Byzantine issues considering these the natural progression of the Roman Empire. Many of the same collectors will exclude as 'Medieval' coins over five hundred older than the last of the Byzantines. We are a strange lot. Included in the series of Byzantine coins are a few types bearing a portrait of Jesus Christ. These date to a period rather near the start of the millennium that is ending as this is written (Y1K). Since this is being posted at Christmas, the subject seems doubly appropriate to be the last addition to this site before Y2K.

Although there were a few issued in the 8th century (I have none to show), coins bearing portraits of Christ became popular following the iconoclast period which ended with the death of Theophilius in 842 AD. Our first example is a fourree (my collecting budget does not make room for solid gold coins) stamenon nomisma of the Y1K emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII (976-1025 AD). The haloed bust of Christ is shown facing and holding a book of Gospels. This pose with halo and book became standard for all later issues. Tiny letters around the edge spell out 'Jesus Christ, King of Kings' in a mixture of Latin and Greek. The brothers are shown on the reverse holding a long patriarchal cross and named in the same tiny Greek letters. The relatively thick fabric and 21mm diameter suggests this coin was from early in the reign. Later specimens of the same denomination were broader and thinner. It is interesting that the Sear catalog of Byzantine Coins specifically mentions the existence of gilded bronze contemporary forgeries of this type. Collectors paying for solid coins should examine purchases carefully to ensure their coin is indeed gold.

Most common of the Christ portrait coins are the bronze 'anonymous' folles. These bear no inscription naming the issuing ruler. They exist in a number of varieties which have been attributed by scholars (at least approximately) to specific reigns and lettered for convenience to 'Classes'. The illustration shows four different coins labeled with their Class letters. Our Class A coin probably was issued about the same time as the gold plated coin above by the same rulers. The obverse portrait is similar to the gold but the reverse contains the Greek for 'Jesus Christ, King of Kings' in four lines of large letters. The edges of the obverse of this coin are flatly struck and fail to show the name 'Emmanuel' expected on the type. The Class B adds a cross to the reverse and is attributed to Romanus III (1028-1034 AD). This coin shows a trace of 'Emmanuel' on the obverse. Class D, Constantine IX (1042-1055 AD), shows a full length figure of Christ on a throne. Class G, Romanus IV (1068-1071 AD), replaces the reverse type of the legend with a facing bust of Mary orans or holding both hands up. Our example is a bit confusing since it is overstruck on an earlier coin. Such overstrikes were instrumental in establishing the order of production of each of the anonymous types. There are several other types of Christ folles not shown here but most are relatively common and easily available in poor condition. These folles are usually found worn and crudely struck. Any coin showing the eyes on the portrait is better than average. Assembling a collection of these common coins is not difficult but finding an attractive specimen of each type will take some effort.

This late Byzantine Trachy of Alexius III (1195-1203 AD) is made interesting by the cup shaped flan. The very convex obverse shows a bust of Christ while the concave reverse shows Alexius and St. Constantine. There are many other versions of this general type ranging from reasonably well made (as here) to horrid little pieces of bent metal. Collecting the series would be interesting but frustrating until a 'feel' for the various types had been developed. For both sides to be fully struck and clear is somewhat unusual. While not a great coin, this example at least shows some detail of both sides. Production required more than one strike to transfer detail on the convex side. For this reason, most coins show the image of Christ somewhat doublestruck. Why were these coins made this way? The obvious answer would seem that it would improve stacking or strengthen the thin flans but here I plead ignorance. This page has repeatedly pointed out gaps in my knowledge but in this case I simply know nothing. Perhaps one of you will be so kind as to write me a note with the information I should have had before posting this page. I was rather proud to be able to photograph these wildly curved surfaces with just a little glare. The idea was to show both the curvature of the flan and the details of the engraving. These unusual coins are readily available at reasonable prices and certainly are something different that a beginner might want to add to the collection. Those with a higher budget will enjoy the gold and electrum versions of these coins. The softer metal enabled much better transfer of detail.

It has been pointed out to me since this was first posted that the cup shaped coins were produced in mixed metals (low silver billon, debased gold or electrum) while flat coins were pure metal. The shape could help distinguish between the two classes. Some collectors refer to these cup shaped coins as 'Scyphates' but I am now told that this term is inappropriate so I have eliminated it from this page.

The latest easily obtainable Byzantine coin is this silver hyperpyron of John VIII (1423-1448 AD). Christ is shown in the standard pose with halo and book but the style has become extremely formal being rendered in as few as possible lines. The legend IC XC (first and last letters of Jesus Christ in Greek) flanks the bust. The bust of the Emperor on the reverse is surrounded by a double ring of legend. Specimens showing the entire legend clearly struck are quite scarce. Our example is a bit above average in this regard and, at least, shows the name IWAN at 1 o'clock on the outer ring. Following John's death, his brother Constantine XI became the last Byzantine Emperor. The very rare coins of Constantine are very similar but even more crude than this. Finding one with legible KWNCT in place of IWAN would be a great stroke of luck.

As stated on earlier pages, I am not a student of Byzantine or other medieval coins. This page is posted to introduce the beginner to the fact that there are coins with Christ portraits. While condition is often lacking, these are popular (great stocking stuffers) for Christian collectors.

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1999 Doug Smith