Historical and Commemorative
Collection of Benjamin Weiss
definitions and NOTES
Medal: A medal, or more specifically a commemorative medal, is generally a round metallic object which is manufactured to commemorate some person, thing, or event of historical interest and importance. Unlike coins, a medal has no intrinsic monetary value; its worth is dependent upon its artistic quality, historical importance, age, rarity, condition, size, and metallic composition. The obverse of the medal generally depicts an image of a person or persons. The reverse often contains one or more devices, which are use to explain or otherwise enlarge upon the characteristics of the person or subject of the medal. These devices are generally allegorical images and/or inscriptions and require a degree of understanding of Greek and Roman history and myths, and Biblical stories in order to discern their allusions.
Obverse, the face or 'heads' side of the medal.
INSCRIPTIONS: Inscriptions are usually found around the portrait or devices of the medal or may also be in the exergue. Most often the inscriptions are in Latin; otherwise they are generally written in the language of the country from which the medal originates. Inscriptions on the medals in this site are shown as BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS.
TRANSLATIONS: Translations into English of foreign inscriptions are show in parentheses following the foreign inscriptions on the medals. These translations can be found along with the enlarged images of the medals and their historical descriptions. A degree of liberty is sometimes taken in these translations in order to provide a sense of their meaning.
As Struck , As Issued or Proof (Polierte
Platte; Flan bruni; Fondo specchio; ?)
Mint state or Uncirculated (Stempelglanz;
Fleur de coin; Fior di conio; F.D.C.)
EF or Extremely Fine (Vorzuglich;
Superbe; Splendido; Prachtig)
VF or Very Fine ( Sehr schon; Tres beau;
Bellissimo; Zeer fraai)
F or Fine (Schon; Beau; Molto bello;
Sometimes the terms "about" or "nearly" (fast;
presque; quasi; Bijna/vrijwel) are used to show that the condition of a
medal is almost up to the next fixed grade but not quite. So, for example, a
medal might be described as being "nearly extremely fine" (fast
Toning is generally believed to improve the quality of a medal and so a toned medal should be described as such. This is why medals should never be cleaned, only gently washed with a mild detergent if absolutely necessary. Edge knocks, discoloration, corrosion, dents, scratches and any other disfigurements should all be mentioned. Also, it should be pointed out if a medal is pierced or if the piercing has been plugged.
METALLIC CONTENT OF MEDALS
A more detailed discussion of this issue, based on analyses of more than one hundred copper-based medals, using x-ray fluorescence spectrometry, can be found in an article by D. R. Hook, published in Jones Vol. 2, p. 305 (see Jones, Vol. 2, in the BIBLIOGRAPHY). In this study Hook found variable amounts of several other metals in these tin- and zinc-copper alloys, including antimony, arsenic, bismuth, iron, nickel, lead and silver.
Further descriptions of the wide variety of metals used to make medals can be found in the detailed article by Tony Clayton entitled Metals Used in Coins and Medals. The very interesting article by Ira Rezak adds other twists to this subject as he enumerates several materials, not metallic in origin, that have been used to make medals.
USE OF THE TERM BRONZE
USE OF THE TERM WHITE METAL
The French kings did not allow the private striking of medals, so medal engravers who wanted to sell copies of their work began producing another sort of cliché. Using a machine called a clichoir they forced a soft medal (usually lead) into their completed dies, creating uniface medallions. These clichés were usually colored to imitate bronze.
The famous engraver Andrieu had a shop in Paris where clichés from his dies were sold. The individual impressions which were sold were mounted in more or less elaborate frames, but there were also sets made up of several clichés, mounted in cases, most of which have the outward appearance of being books. (Taken from: www.fortiter.napoleonicmedals.org).
Particularly interesting examples of clichés, some 140 mm in diameter, can be found under Napoleonic Medals on this web site.
Electrotypes: In general
terms, electrotyping is an electrochemical multiplication process used to
duplicate relief and intaglio engravings by depositing metallic salts onto
the surface of a mold by means of electrolysis. To make medal electrotypes,
which may be viewed as an electrical equivalent of metal casting (see
below), a wax mold is prepared and treated with powdered graphite (the
graphite serves as a lubricant and conductor of electricity). Copper
conductor pegs are inserted into the back of the wax impression and the wax
mold is immersed into an electrolytic acid solution (usually of copper
sulfate and sulfuric acid), containing a sheet of copper. Using the opposite
poles of a battery, an electric current is then passed between the wax mold
and copper sheet, causing the copper to dissolve and be deposited onto the
wax mold. After the resulting thin copper impression or shell is removed
from the wax mold, it is often filled with a lead alloy to strengthen it. A
reverse of the medal may be made in a similar fashion and the obverse and
reverse joined. Such electrotyped medals can usually be discerned by their
having a thin line around their edge where the two halves had been joined.
(Taken, in part, from Burt, D.J. Electrotype Medallions, The Medal
5, 48-49, 1984; and from Eimer, C., British Commemorative Medals
and their values.)
See also LINK to Dick Johnson on Electrotypes (in E-Sylum)
Glossary of Sizes of "Medals"
What follows is a compilation of the opinions of various authorities in the field regarding the terminology and sizes of materials included under the general heading of ‘medals’. As there is no absolute agreement as to the specific measurements, I am sure there are those who would disagree as to the particular values listed. I provide these merely as a guide.
Medalet: a small, usually round medal, usually less than 25 mm in diameter.
Medallion: a large, usually round medal, over 80 mm in diameter, but not larger than 300 mm. It is usually two-sided. This term is often used in Europe.
Circular Relief: A round piece larger than 300 mm in diameter. It is usually one-sided.
Medal: Generally round between 26 and 80 mm in diameter.
Plaque: A square, rectangular or oblong piece, usually one-sided and more than 200 mm at its longer dimension.
Plaquette: A square, rectangular or oblong piece, less than 200 mm in its longer dimension. It is sometimes two-sided but is usually one-sided.
Modern usage for measuring the size of medals and plaques employs the metric system* (mm for medals or sometimes cm for plaques:10 mm equals 1 cm). In older literature the English system** (inches) was used. Sometimes, as in Betts, the units are given in 1/16 of an inch; thus a size 43 in Betts equals 2.69 inches or 68 mm. The standard work of Hawkins, Frank and Grueber (Medallic Illustrations...), which covers English medals through George II, uses inches as their measurements. However, a continuation of this history from George III to the present by Laurence Brown, published more recently, uses the metric system for medals exclusively, as does every other current writer and cataloger in every country that I am aware of (thankfully). As a matter of fact, Brown and others sometimes don’t even state the unit of measurement, as it is taken for granted they mean mm. Most of the books on medals printed in England up until the 20th century still used inches. Some books which show medal engravings of actual size do not mention the size at all.
Conversions: Collectors are encouraged to use the metric system exclusively. For those who insist on using the outdated and cumbersome English system: 1 inch = 25.4 mm.
*The metric system is an international decimalized system of measurement. France was first to adopt it in 1799 and it is now the basic system of measurement used in almost every country in the world; the United States being the only industrialized country yet to adopt the International System of Units as its predominant system of measurement. (From Wikipedia).
**English units are the historical units of measurement in medieval England which evolved as a combination of the Anglo-Saxon and Roman systems of units. They were redefined in England in 1824 by a Weights and Measures Act, which retained many but not all of the unit names with slightly different values, and again in the 1970s by the International System of Units as a subset of the metric system. In modern UK usage, the term is considered ambiguous, as it could refer either to the imperial system used in the UK, or to the US customary system of unit. The common term used in the UK for the non-metric system is imperial units or imperial measurements, since they were used as a standard throughout the British Empire and the Commonwealth. (From Wikipedia)
Distinction Between a Token and a Medal
The distinction between a medal and a token is also somewhat controversial, though it is generally agreed that, unlike medals, tokens are often, thought not exclusively, used as supplements to legal tender coinage. Types of tokens vary considerably and include, among many others, those used as fare for streetcars, buses, and turnstile admittance . They were issued from early times when coins supplies were in short supply. Popular collecting areas include those used during the Hard Times and Civil War eras. Tokens have also been widely employed as advertisements. As a general rule they are made of base metals and, in the opinion of the author, while tokens are sometimes of great historical interest, they do not match the artistic quality of most historical and commemorative medals.
Iconography can be defined in various ways. For our purposes we will define it as a pictorial, symbolic representation of a person, place or thing. Engraved on medals it is a short-hand means of defining or explaining a subject.
Some of the following material is taken from Mark Jones (Medals of the Sun King).
France: A dress or shield with fleurs de lys
Athena: Goddess of War under her Greek appellation Pallas and Goddess of Prudence under the Roman Minerva
Justice: Scales and sword
River god with urn: Siege or battle
Crown: indicates Success
TECHNIQUES FOR MAKING MEDALS
There are three general techniques used to make medals: REPOUSSÉ, STRIKING and CASTING.
An example of a medal made by this process is the medal of Oliver Cromwell and Masaniello by the Dutch medallist O. Müller.
STRIKING: This is the technique that is most widely used to make medals and coins. In this case, the design is made in relief on untempered steel, resulting in what is called a punch or puncheon. The medallist may make more than one puncheon for each medal: a principal puncheon of the main figure of the design and sometimes subsidiary puncheons, also in relief, for letters, beading around the edge, and other subsidiary features. The puncheons would then be tempered and be impressed upon the surface of a block of untempered steel which was to become the die or matrix. This would afterwards be tooled and touched-up by hand. Often a trial strike in a soft metal such a lead is used to examine the quality of the engraving. Once the artist is satisfied, the dies are hardened by tempering, and flans of less base metals, such as gold, silver or bronze, are used to make the finished medal.
To make the finished medal, metal blanks or flans are
heated to soften them and are pressed into the dies. Originally this was
done by striking the flan with a hammer. Later a screw press was employed,
and still later modern presses were employed to press the softened flan onto
As an alternative to first making a puncheon in relief and then making the die from the puncheon, the design is engraved or incised directly onto metallic dies; in this case, the engraving is termed incuse or intaglio and, like dies made from punches, is in the form of a negative. The die is then tempered and the medal struck as described above.
CASTING: Casting is generally considered to be the
technique that has produced the finest in medallic art. Almost all of the
great medals of the Renaissance period were made by casting.
Video of Medal Casting (Frick Collection)
THE RENAISSANCE OF THE CAST MEDAL IN NINETEENTH
The medal as we know it today had its origins in the Italian Renaissance with the circular bronze commemorative portraits produced by Pisanello (c.1395-1455) during the mid-fifteenth century. Medals are often viewed in a numismatic context because they share certain obvious characteristics with coins. Both are round, made of metal, and exhibit a portrait on the front (obverse) and an allegorical or narrative scene relating to that portrait on the back (reverse). In general, coins are produced in great numbers by a central political authority and are meant to circulate socially as a medium of exchange. Medals, however, have no intrinsic value. They are produced for many purposes: to celebrate famous people, to mark important social or political events, or to memorialize personal milestones, such as births, marriages and deaths. Until the seventeenth century, medals were often used as articles of personal adornment, attached to clothing or worn around the neck. As intimate sculpture in a double-sided relief format, medals have always been something to hold and turn in the hand--personal objects for aesthetic and intellectual contemplation.
A medal can either be struck or cast--techniques developed in the classical world and perfected during the Italian Renaissance. The process of striking consists first of the preparation of the desired images on two dies followed by the impression by force of these dies onto a prepared metal blank. In antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages this force was provided by the simple act of hammering. The invention of the screw press in early sixteenth century Italy enabled medals to be struck with greater speed and control. The result is an object sharply and precisely defined, but often rather dry and lacking in sculptural elegance. Not surprisingly, striking was, and is today, the method utilized for mass production of both coins and medals. Casting requires the preparation of two original uniface models--the obverse and reverse--in wax, plaster, or less commonly, wood or stone. These models are utilized to create negative molds in a soft material such as terracotta or gesso. Once the molds have dried, they are fitted together leaving channels into which the molten metal is poured. After cooling, the medal in its raw state is removed from the mold. At this stage a careful hand finishing is required which includes filing, chasing, and often the application of chemically based patinations and thin coats of lacquer. The final result is a unique work of art, with examples of the same medal exhibiting subtle variations in color and surface detail.
The earliest medals in sixteenth century France were produced by goldsmiths working in a style which combined the native Gothic heraldic tradition with an obvious awareness of Italian Renaissance portraiture. From the outset, the production of medals in France was highly dependent on the patronage of the crown. This may be viewed in comparison to the early history of the medal in Italy, where artists relied more on the commands of private patrons, resulting in the possibility of greater artistic freedom. The invitations extended by François I (1494-1547) to Italian artists and craftsmen, among them Benvenuto Cellini and the aged Leonardo, to help embellish his court at Fontainebleau demonstrate the lure that Italian aesthetic innovation had in France.
In 1572 during the reign of Charles IX, Germain Pilon (c. 1525-1590), the greatest sculptor of the French Renaissance was named to the newly created post of Controleur général des effigies. Pilon, who created some of the most beautiful cast medallic portraits of this period, was given the responsibility for producing the models from which coins and officially commissioned medals were struck. This beginning of centralized control over the striking of coins and medals was further reinforced when, during the reign of Henri IV, Guillaume Dupré (c. 1576-1643) was appointed Controleur des poinçons et effigies pour les monnaies and allowed to establish his foundry and presses under Royal protection in the Gallery of the Louvre. Dupré created some sixty cast medals during his career, aesthetically comparable to the finest works of the Italian Renaissance and technically unparalleled. It is significant to note that Dupré produced the last important corpus of cast medals in France until the nineteenth century. While Dupré elevated the status of the French medal, it was Jean Warin (1596-1672) who transformed this art form into one devoted almost entirely to the glory of the state. Warin, named controleur général in 1647, had accumulated by mid-century sufficient political authority to effectively monopolize the striking of coins and medals at the French mint. In 1663 Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), the secretary of state for Louis XIV, formed the Académies des inscriptions et belles lettres to impose centralized control over the arts as a way of increasing the power of government. Under Warin's influence, the concerns of the Academy rapidly evolved into the supervision and production of the The Medallic Histories of Louis XIV; that is, to the creation of what was, in effect, medallic propaganda celebrating the glories of the reign of Louis XIV and the superiority of French culture and technology. This process was so strictly controlled that medallists lost the right to execute their own designs and instead, were reduced to copying Academy-approved drawings produced by artists, such as Antoine Coypel and Sebastian LeClerc. The Medallic Histories of Louis XIV was responsible for eighty-five separate obverse portraits of the Sun King and some three hundred allegorical reverses celebrating the achievements of his reign.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, French medals
had been exported throughout Europe and were enormously influential. These
precisely struck images were not only extremely effective in promoting the
glories of the French state, but also provided artistic models which were
appropriated and altered for local consumption from Portugal to Russia. As
Mark Jones has pointed out, the great transformation which Warin set in
motion at the end of the seventeenth century changed the very meaning of the
medal "both to those who made them and those who received them." This
evolution from artist cast and finished celebrations of the individual to
mechanically struck objects of political and cultural propaganda remained
the norm in France until the Revolution of 1789 brought an end to the
With the Revolution came new artistic possibilities. Napoleon viewed the continuation of the state controlled medal as important, even to the extent of having designs sent from Paris for his approval during foreign campaigns. Vivant Dominique, Baron Denon, called Vivant Denon (1747-1825) was named Directeur général des musées français in 1804, and, as Bonaparte's advisor on all artistic affairs, was responsible for including medallists in the Prix de Rome competition. The medal thus officially took its place alongside painting, sculpture and architecture, occupying two seats at the French Academy in Rome. Denon, undoubtedly influenced by the earlier example of Colbert, supervised a comprehensive medallic production of Napoleon and the Empire period which was rigidly neoclassical in style. Although artistic freedom became a possibility as a result of the Revolution, not all artists chose to break with the style of the ancien régime. Indeed, the artistic vocabulary of most official medallic commissions remained neoclassical until just after the reign of Napoleon III. Artists inspired by the creative explosion of the Romantic movement during the 1820's and 30's, however, began searching for new modes of expression. This search led to the Art Nouveau style of medallic art and the great French artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, most notably, Pierre-Jean David d'Angers (1788-1856), Hubert Ponscarme (1827-1903), Louis-Oscar Roty (1846-1911), Jules Clement Chaplain (1839-1909), and Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909), sculptors and medallists who further exemplified the artistic achievements of the French medallic renaissance. (taken from www.dcyates.com/medals.asp).
LINK to The Renaissance of the Cast Medal in 19th Century France by David and Constance Yates (from ANSmagazine.com)
COMMENTARY ON CAST MEDALS
DATING FRENCH MEDALS BY
Summary of French Mint Marks
The symbols used are shown below.
DENSITIES OF METALS
Copyright © 2003-2019 Benjamin Weiss