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The appeal of Celtic coins

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  • The appeal of Celtic coins

    Like modern art, the best Celtic and other "barbarian" coinage is characterized by the communicating of emotion and the inner vision of the artist rather than a portrayal of the exact representation of nature, an expression of subjective rather than objective reality. By straying from the strict figural or idealized representationalism practiced in the Greek world in favor of highly stylized abstraction, Celtic die cutters brought out the essence of their forms in a strikingly individualistic and evocative manner. Just as Impressionism, Expressionism, and other schools of modern art were a reaction to the prevailing aesthetic standards of the time, so was the numismatic art of these coins.

    In the past, the supremacy of Greek representationalism was assumed, and nonrepresentationalism was regarded as degenerately derivative. The publication of Paul Jacobsthal's 1944 book Early Celtic Art did a lot to change this thinking among many academics, but prejudice toward the abstract has persisted, just as some people today uncritically regard the representational work of a Rembrandt as superior to the nonrepresentational work of a Picasso.

    But just as not all representative art is evocative or compelling, not all abstract art is either, whether on coins or elsewhere. Hans Rauch described well the differences between stylish imitative Celtic issues and crude ones in his October 1969 article, "The Celts and Their Coinage," which appeared in the Journal of the Society of Ancient Numismatics (SAN). "Frequently the impression is obtained that the artist avoided the reproduction of nature by skillful exaggeration, almost bordering the abstract... culminating in a strange modern and sometimes beautiful effect. It should be stated, however, not all coins... are of artistic merit. Many... were crude, ugly, and truly barbaric."

  • #2
    A Different Perspective to see the Truth

    Newsgroups: rec.collecting.coins
    From: "Mike Marotta" <>
    Date: 29 Dec 2005 07:43:18 -0800
    Local: Thurs, Dec 29 2005 10:43 am
    Subject: A New View of Celtic Coins

    Celtic coins -- and coins from other cultures as well -- are meant to be viewed edge-on as three-dimensional objects, according to Geraldine Chimirri-Russell of the Nickle Arts museum at the University of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada.

    Commonly called "abstract" or "Picasso" or even "crude" these objects carry arrangements of features that reflect the subtle intelligence and clear intentions of their creators and original users.

    “Seeing the Past Obliquely Through the Eyes of Celtic Coins” Appears on the Metamedia website of Stanford university.
    The URL is
    The abstract says: “This paper will examine non-traditional ways of viewing ancient Iron Age Celtic Coinage, found mainly in the region of North-west Europe. The emphasis will be upon the coins as three-dimensional objects rather than as the seemingly two-dimensional objects that the rigors of numismatic description have postulated.”

    Chimirri-Russell explained her theory at the Nickel Arts conference on “Coinage and Identities in the Ancient World” in Calgary, November 4-6, 2004.

    She spoke in Canterbury the previous summer at “Art and Symbolism in Coin Design.” On Saturday, July 3, 2004, her 2.00 pm presentation was titled "A sidesways glance at Celtic coinage." In the words of the Fitzwilliam's electronic newsletter: "... and Geraldine Chimirri-Russell (Curator of Numismatics at the Nickle Arts Museum, Calgary) finding three-dimensional images on some Celtic coins. That evening many people must have been squinting at their own coins from oblique angles in the hope of seeing a 3-D face!"

    The year before, she delivered an address on this subject at the XIII Congreso Internacional de Numismatica (September 15-19, 2003 at the Palacio de Congresos de Madrid). Her talk was listed in the program as "Changing artistic perspectives on Celtic coins." (see

    When she came home, she got a blurb in the University of Calgary InfoServer Volume 10, Number 3 October 2003. "Geraldine Chimirri-Russell, Assistant Curator of Numismatics at the Nickle Arts Museum, gave a poster presentation at the XIII Congresso Internacional de Numismatica in Madrid in September. Her presentation focused on the abstract design elements of Celtic coins from the second century BCE to the first century CE. She demonstrated that the abstraction was necessary from a design perspective, in order for the faces on the coins to be viewed more naturally from an oblique angle."

    More recently, the University of Calgary InfoServer for March 2005, carried this article: "Heads or Tails or Something Else?"
    On hearing a familiar call of “Heads or Tails” there appears to be no doubt that there are two sides to a coin. But on very rare occasions, after being tossed into the air, a coin can fall on its edge, and the three-dimensionality of the coin is only too apparent. My research focuses on the three-dimensional properties of Celtic coins minted in the Iron Age in Northern Europe, particularly northwest France, and how these properties affect how the images are seen on the coins. The evidence from the coins indicates that the Celts were using a unique method of portraying images that can be interpreted in many ways according to the vantage point from which they are viewed.
    The Celtic artists who designed the coins created highly stylized images that seem to have a greater affnity with Picasso than with the naturalistic coins of ancient Greece and Rome minted in the same time period. The obverse side of the coins generally depicts a human head, apparently in profile, in front of which swirl mysterious lines and symbols. Various theories have been proposed to account for this unusual artistic rendition of the human face, including the incompetence of the artists, Celtic mythology, and the inhospitable living conditions of the region. However, the sculptural quality of the coins encourages them to be examined from more than one vantage point. Thus, if a coin is rotated on its axis and viewed obliquely, a quite different, more natural image of a human head can be perceived.
    An actual and metaphorical lens through which coins can be viewed affects the interpretation of the image. In the same way that an inferior lens will distort an image, so an unawareness of cultural preconceptions will hinder the understanding of artistic purpose in the rendition of an image. The metaphorical lens that is generally preferred today is one that has been fashioned by the theory of perspective that was introduced in the Renaissance, a mere five hundred years ago, and it is necessary to be aware that the Celtic culture preceded the Renaissance by more than fifteen hundred years. To begin to understand the Celtic viewpoint, it is necessary to abandon the familiar lens and to use the unfamiliar: to abandon the frontal vantage point and to explore the oblique. Geraldine Chimirri-Russell
    In the same light, her presentation at the 2005 C.N.A. Convention (Calgary) Educational Forum on Saturday, July 23, was titled, "Images on Canadian Money: Believing what you see and seeing what you believe."

    Afterword: In my article “Champagne: The Athens of the Middle Ages,” (The Celator, Vol. 25. No. 11, November 2009), I showed a coin of the Middle Ages which suggests the very same presentation, that it was intended to be viewed obliquely.
    Last edited by mmarotta; Sep 6, 2010, 06:35 AM.

    Michael E. Marotta


    • #3
      Geraldine Chimirri-Russell's view on this is in fact a theory. For a theory like this to be regarded as fact, as truth, the experiments or observations leading to it have to be replicated. I couldn't replicate myself what Chimirri-Russell saw in Celtic coins. The last time I checked with a number of people who have far longer experience and greater expertise with Celtic coins than me, they weren't able to replicate this either. Even when looking at large numbers of Celtic coins, in peering at them obliquely people weren't seeing a representational three-dimensional image through the nonrepresentational two-dimensional image on the coin's surface. In all likelihood this indicates that Celtic coins in general weren't designed, cut, and struck to be viewed obliquely but were meant to be viewed straight on like every other coin.

      One observer, correctly I believe, called this 3D effect in what apparently is a small number of coins "a felicitous visual accident." Further, he said, "Why would a Celtic engraver go to such tortuous lengths to contrive a 3D effect when the chances of it being noticed by anybody where virtually nil? It doesn't make sense." I agree with this as well.
      Last edited by reidgold; Dec 4, 2010, 08:48 AM.