William Van Ornum
The Vatican's coins of the realm
Image

Every coin has a story to tell. Holding a Lincoln penny in your hand, for example, can be a tangible reminder of the life of Abraham Lincoln. Staring at his copper face can evoke memories of the Gettysburg Address or the Emancipation Proclamation. On the back of the coin is a tiny, detailed portrait of the Lincoln Memorial, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech in 1964. His speech, which rang out on those steps, is evoked by the coin.

As a coin enthusiast, I sometimes I pull from my pocket a five lire coin issued by the Vatican in 1939. I keep it for the image on its back of St. Peter struggling in a storm. He knows, I tell myself, that God’s efforts, not his own, will save him. This image, common on Vatican coins, is one of the many inspiring coins and medals displayed at the Vatican’s Philatelic and Numismatic Museum. Founded in 2007, the museum draws many visitors and fosters an awareness of over 1,300 years of Vatican involvement in the production of coins and medals.

Vatican coins (those since 1929), papal medals (15th century onward) and Papal States coins (8th century to 1870, resumed with 1929 coins) also offer a glimpse of important figures and events in the Catholic Church.

Peter Jencius, one of the most experienced U.S. numismatists specializing in Vatican coins, recounts how in the 1970s his father focused his coin business on Vatican coins, “traveling several times each year to Europe to bring back coins for customers who wanted to keep the heritage of their church alive through these permanent mementos.” Jenicus added, “They can underscore what the pope is trying to convey through his encyclicals, showcase a building or museum or other cultural artifact or even re-create a biblical scene with contemporary meaning.” Some, like the medal issued annually on the vigil of the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 28), or the two euro coin depicting St. Paul on horseback, can also serve as tools for evangelization.

The New Museum

The museum showcases the entire Vatican City philatelic and numismatic production from 1929 to the present, and also displays a wide selection of postmarks, sketches, typographic plates, plasters, bronze casts and items illustrating the production stages of stamps and coins. Older coins were typically minted in bronze, copper, silver and gold; modern coins are cast in aluminum or nickel alloys and bimetallic “planchets” (the metal on which a coin is stamped) commonly used in the production of other European coins.

Consider the artistry, history and spiritual themes depicted in the following examples.

Vatican coins since 1929. These were minted soon after the Lateran Agreements, signed by Mussolini, created the Vatican City State, during a perilous time for the church. Several Vatican coins of that era depict St. Peter in a storm: He sits alone in a small boat as whitecaps threaten to capsize it. With one oar in the water and the other in the boat, Peter raises his right hand to heaven. All seems hopeless. Peter wears a look of terror on his face; it will take the Lord’s help to save him.

By contrast, on the obverse (front side) of the 50 euro coin minted in 2002 is a profile of an aging John Paul II holding a walking stick. The image suggests both forward movement and past pilgrimages. The reverse (back side) portrays Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, an event crucial to Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Looking at the image recently, I was reminded of Abraham’s family tree in the Book of Genesis. From Isaac came the nations of Israel; and from his brother, Ishmael, came the nations of Islam. These two sons once dwelt together in the same family.

Papal medals. A precious gold medal from the reign of Julius II (1503 to 1513) is stamped with a different impression of St. Peter in the storm (See photo, p. 21). Historians debate the legacy of Julius. He constructed many lasting Roman edifices, encouraged Bramante to begin St. Peter’s Basilica and supported Raphael and Michelangelo. Yet his projects depended on money from indulgences, a practice that later led to Martin Luther’s revolutionary departure from the church, and on gold that was either discovered in or looted from the New World. In this image Peter is accompanied by St. Andrew. One could apply the imaginative techniques of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and ask: What were the two apostles thinking? Where are James and John, the other fishermen? How much did human effort count in quelling the metaphorical storms of the 16th century or the 20th century? Which actions were due to God?

Peter Jencius notes that during the 15th century papal medals became a popular form of artistic expression. The medium of thick medallions requires skill in sculpture and relief; the artist must also create a die that can withstand hundreds or thousands of replications.

Papal coins before 1929. Alan G. Berman, an expert in medieval and papal coins, recently compiled a scholarly catalogue of papal coinage, beginning with the papacy of St. Gregory III (731–41) and ending in 2001, during the papacy of John Paul II. On the front is usually a bust of the pope. But Berman notes that “papal reverse types are among the most varied and creative to be found on Western coinage.” They include symbols, heraldry, inscriptions, allegories, biblical scenes, architecture and saints. Many numismatists hope the Vatican will extend its virtual museum of coins, being built online to include coins since 1929, to offer older images, including some historic masterpieces.

Praying With Coins

In a trip to Rome or online, you might want to incorporate these images into your spiritual life. The Spiritual Exercises suggest a way: 1) Offer a preparatory prayer asking that the scene on the coin be helpful in understanding God; 2) imagine the scene in as much detail as possible, filling in the story; 3) contemplate how the scene is relevant to one’s own life; 4) include a conversation with those depicted on the coin; and 5) offer thanks for how God has worked through the event on which you have meditated.

Vatican coins and papal coins and medals offer something more than the average penny: an insight into one’s own relationship with God.

View a slideshow of Vatican coins and medals, and explore additional resources for coin enthusiasts.

William Van Ornum, a regular blogger for America’s “In All Things,” is a professor of psychology at Marist College i

Comments

JANICE JOHNSON | 3/20/2011 - 9:12pm
Thank you for the beautiful article on "Spiritual Currency".
It is amazing how much history and biography can be shown on such small pieces of art. While it would be wonderful to see the coins at the Vatican Museum, the slide show was wonderful, too. I appreciate your ideas on using the coins in meditation and plan to start with the coin "Lamb of God Grant us Peace" and move on to St. Peter in the storm. I do have to admit that of all the coins I've seen here and elsewhere my favorites are the ones of Peter and Andrew fishing and St. Peter fishing in the Sea of Galilee.
we vnornm | 3/13/2011 - 6:23pm
David,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I, too, generally prefer the older coins and medals as there is so much to look at; of course I prefer artisits like Breugel or Grandma Moses to Picasso or Chagal, and I can mull forever inside a Romaneaque or Gothic Church and fail to be inspired seeing a Frank Lloyd Wright home or modern glass skyscraper. De gustibus non disputandem est?

In slide 21, the two Popes are John XXIII and Paul VI-both Popes were involved w Vatican II.

Thanks for letting us know about iPad. I will mention here that assembling and organizing the photos for this took much more time than writing the article, and many thanks go to Tim and Stefanie for their great work in making the images available to everyone. best, bill
David Smith | 3/11/2011 - 11:56pm

Thanks for the slide show.  Interesting that the older coins are more interesting than some of the most recent ones, which seem almost hastily drawn.  Pius XI (slide 9) is particularly lovely.  The Vatican II coin (slide 22) is almost ugly.  In slide 21, why are there two popes?

Nice that the faces of the popes aren't idealized, but show warts and all, as with Clement X (slide 11).By the way, I can't bring up slide 24 in full-screen mode.  Also, the slide show is in Adobe Flash, which can't be viewed on the iPad.  Too bad - it would be lovely there.

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