The Other Coin: The Changing Image of Christ as Influenced by
Byzantine Coins

The image of Jesus as a long-haired, bearded Semitic individual was rather
late in coming in the iconography of the Church and its standardization owes
much to Byzantine coins. Even then there are other distinct traditions of
young beardless or lightly bearded Christ, the enthroned Christ and the
Madonna and Child--all spread and standardized on Byzantine coins.

The earliest images of Christ found in frescoes, mosaics and sarcophagi from
the 200's and 300's in Rome and the Holy Land most often depict Christ as
the Good Shepherd. Christ is a smooth shaven light hair and skin typical
Roman or Greek in a toga or chiton. This depiction was influenced by the
popular Shepherd of Hermas that appeared as a canonical book in most early
codexes of the New Testament. The clean shaven Christ is also found in
Christ depicted as teacher, Dionysus (god of wine and immortality), and
occasionally Apollo.

After 300 AD, Helena, the mother of Constantine, traveled the Holy Land
founding churches on all the holy sites, including the tomb, Golgotha, Mt.
Sinai, Bethlehem, Jordan River, etc. She is also credited with discovering the
True Cross, nails and many other relics, which she collected and has sent to
Constantinople or eventually ended up there. Among these relics was the
famous Mandyloin or Veronica's Veil, which was supposed to have left
Jesus' image on it after he wiped the sweat from his face as he journeyed to
his crucifixion. The Mandyloin was stolen from Constantinople and is in the
papal residence in Rome.

In addition a painting tradition grew up in Antioch, traditionally started by St.
Luke. Antioch was famous for its collection of early Christian relics. The
first place followers of Jesus were called Christians--so great were the
churches and images that Justinian renamed the Antioch the City of God,
Theopolis, after he rebuilt the city damaged by earthquakes and floods in 526
and 528 AD. Byzantine icons are supposed to have been inspired by these
paintings. By the 700's Constantinople was awash not only in the treasure of
classical Rome and Greece, but also thousands of relics and paintings of
Christ.

Unfortunately the rise of Islam and loss of Jerusalem encouraged several
Byzantine emperors to see the collection of Greek, Roman, and Christian
images as offensive to God and many were destroyed much like the
Protestant Reformation. The iconoclasts soon parted and with Justinian II in
695 and 705 presented to quite different images of Christ on his coins--the
long haired bearded Christ and the young curly haired short bearded Christ,
both derived from icons based on paintings ascribed to St. Luke. In addition,
the Byzantine emperors presented Christ as Christ Pantokrater (The all ruling)
in the domes of churches either with a halo or enthroned. When enthroned or
standing, Christ was usually depicted blessing with the two finger ed sign of
the cross (representing the two nature of Christ--man and God) and holding
the Gospels. The infant Christ is depicted facing on the breast of Mary of
held to her left in swaddling clothes. All these images were minted on coins
beginning in 695AD and then after 900AD most of Byzantine coins had Christ
on them in one form or another. Where one might visit a Byzantine or
Byzantine inspired church throughout the Middle East or Italy, the coinage
traveled much further and was more ubiquitous. Indeed the gold coinage of
the Eastern Roman Empire was the standard coinage of the Mediterranean
world from 400-1200AD. Bulgaria, Hungary, Sicily, and Venice all copied
Byzantine Coinage as their own. In this way the images of Christ on coins
influence the Renaissance and Reformation and our own idea of what Christ
looked like.

Numismatically yours, David Elliott  
Justinian enthroned/Antioch mint name
changed to THEUP(OLIS)