NGC Ancients: Christ Portraits on Byzantine Coinage

Ancient Byzantine coins depict Christ's image in a variety of styles.

The image of Jesus Christ has been – and almost certainly will remain – one of the most popular themes for collectors of Byzantine coins. Though there is a general consistency in the numismatic portrayals of Christ, there still are enough differences to make it possible to build a meaningful collection on that basis alone.

Gold solidus of Justinian II from his first reign (A.D. 685 to 695)
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Surprisingly, Christ’s image did not appear on coinage until the first reign of Justinian II (A.D. 685 to 695), about 350 years after Christianity had become the state religion of the Romans (and thus, also, their ‘Byzantine’ successors). An example is shown above. Prior to this, a portrait of the emperor was the usual obverse type for most Roman and Byzantine coins.

Scholars have made a connection between the introduction of Justinian’s Christ-portrait coinage and the adoption in A.D. 692 of Canon 82 of the Quinisext Council. It proscribes that the Lamb, as a symbol of Christ, should be abandoned in favor of an image of Christ in human form.

On that occasion a familiar image was chosen: the portrait of Christ Pantocrator (‘almighty’), which prior to that had graced many icons, including a famous one in the imperial palace in Constantinople. This form and style of Christ image seems to have found its roots in the work of the sculptor Phidias, who about 1,150 years before had constructed a massive statue of the Greek god Zeus at Olympia.

Gold solidus of Justinian II from his second reign (A.D. 705 to 711)
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In A.D. 695 Justinian II was ousted from power by an ambitious general, and sent into exile. Ten years passed before he returned for a second reign (A.D. 705 to 711). This time Justinian II resumed the use of Christ’s image on coinage, but instead of the long-haired image of his first coinage, he chose a radically different style of portrait – a ‘Semitic type’ on which Christ’s hair and beard are rendered in short, tight curls. The likely source of this style of portrait was icons, perhaps from monasteries in the Holy Land and the Near East.

Gold tetarteron of Constantine IX (1042 to 1055)
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Both types of Christ portraits used by Justinian II show Christ cradling the Book of Gospels in his left arm, as he raises his right hand in benediction. They also show the Holy Cross behind his head, an element which differs from most Byzantine coin portraits of Christ (on which he is shown nimbate – adorned with a halo). The gold tetarteron of Constantine IX, above, is a perfect example of this portrait type.

Gold hyperpyron of Manuel I (A.D. 1143 to 1180)
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One of the most unusual Christ portraits on Byzantine coins occurs on a gold hyperpyron of the Emperor Manuel I (1143 to 1180), shown above. Instead of being presented as a mature, bearded figure, Christ is shown as a young child. This style of image is often referred to as Christ Emmanuel, so it is hardly a surprise that the Emperor Manuel I would have chosen it due to the similarity to his name.

Gold aureus of the Caesar Licinius II (A.D. 317 to 324)
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Gold histamenon nomisma of Romanus III (A.D. 1028 to 1034)
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Though busts of Christ were common on Byzantine coins, many times he was shown as a full figure seated on an elaborate throne. Of all the images of Christ that appeared on coinage, those with his seated image are most directly drawn from Phidius’ statue of Zeus at Olympia, as can be seen from the two coins above. The top image, an aureus of Licinius II depicting Jupiter (the Roman version of Zeus) is among the last Roman coins struck with the likeness of a pagan god (excepting Victory, who in the Christian state was successfully converted from a god to a personification).

Gold histamenon nomisma of Theodora (A.D. 1055 to 1056)
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Far less-commonly, Christ is shown as a standing figure, such as on the histamenon nomisma of Theodora, above. Here Christ is nimbate and holds the Book of Gospels with both hands.

A copper ‘anonymous’ follis issued circa A.D. 1020 to 1028
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The most abundant – and affordable – images of Christ on Byzantine coinage occurs on copper folles of the 10th and 11th Centuries A.D., which were introduced during the reign of Emperor John I (A.D. 969 to 976). They are host to a variety of designs and typically are described as ‘anonymous’ because the image of Christ and the inscription dedicated to Him replace those that formerly had been devoted to the emperor.

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Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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