As I’m sure many of are aware, there’s a series of French 20 Franc coins that were made from 1871 to 1898 that feature a winged figure writing on a tablet. In the US, I’m assuming because we’re a Christian majority country, most of us see a winged figure and think “angel.” As a result, these coins are usually called French Angels or something similar and even the name of the Registry Category references these coins as Angels. But the man that designed the coin probably wasn’t trying to depict an angel or any kind of Christian or religious image when he made the design based on what I can find.
The design was originally made by Augustin Dupre, an artist who was principally inspired by the neoclassical school and its themes law, freedom (including “Freedom” personified as a winged person), scales, Greek mythology and Hellenistic beauty standards. (I’ve always found it interesting that, when depicted allegorically, “Liberty” is a woman and “Freedom” is a man.)
The design by Dupre depicts a “Génie ailé” (“Winged genius”) and it first appeared on French coinage in 1792, during the heart of the French Revolution. Dupre was named the Graveur général des monnaies (Chief Engraver of Coins) by the national assembly in July 1791. In the original versions of the coin the figure is writing the word Loi (Law) on a tablet. Some versions of the coin include the motto “Le Règne de la Loi” (“The Reign of the Law”). In the post revolution period the coins might read something like “An III de la liberté” (“Year three of the liberty”). In some later uses of the design the figure is writing “Constitution.”
The coin design was revived in the 1870s, long after Dupre passed away in 1833, and placed on these 20 Franc and 100 Franc coins. Saying that these later versions were designed by Dupre is therefore a bit inaccurate, but they do feature his art.
If you want another hint that the design might not be Christian in origin or inspiration, the 20 Franc coins simply say “Republique Francaise” (French Republic) on the obverse. The reverse side just says, “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” (“Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood”). There’s nothing on the coin that references “God,” gods, or divine favor. By contrast, a US silver dollar from this period (1878 and later) would have proudly stated “In God We Trust.” For another example, 10 Gulden coins made in the Netherlands during this same period were inscribed with “God Zij Met Ons” (“God be with us”).
I thought it was an angel too because it looked like one and because that’s what everyone else was calling it. But I just couldn’t help but wonder why they would have made a design like that and what would have inspired / instigated that in the post-revolutionary period. Why an angel on coins in France in the late 19th century? Now I know: It’s not post-revolutionary. it’s revolutionary. It’s not really an angel. The recurring theme of this coin / design is “freedom,” not religion, faith or God. This is not a religious image - it’s a post-enlightenment image.
Apparently, there’s a legend whereby Dupre was headed for the guillotine but he was somehow saved by his “lucky angel.” This seems unlikely to be true. Dupre wasn’t a wealthy noble; he was appointed to his position by the national assembly; he wasn’t a counter-revolutionary. There’s no obvious reason why his “lucky angel” would have needed to intervene and save his neck. He held his official position until 1803, well after the Reign of Terror ended in the mid-1790s.
Now I just have to figure out… “Why the rooster?” (More on this when I get around to it in a later post)
I still haven’t bought / ordered one of these yet. It’s probably coming in the next few weeks though.