Portrait Coins and Images of Power, a student-designed exhibition of the Ottilia Buerger Collection of Ancient and Byzantine Coins, opens tonight at 6:30 at Wriston Art Center. The exhibition will showcase the efforts of advanced art history students from Professor Carol Lawton’s fall term seminar on the Buerger collection and will also honor the legacy of the benefactress, who recently passed away in December of 2001.The display work itself presented a few hurdles to the student designers, since some of the coins represented more than one type of iconography and required both sides to be displayed. Therefore, a new case was built to accommodate the unique nature of this double-sided art with a center Plexiglas display.
The students in Lawton’s seminar divided the more than 300 coins in the Buerger Collection into iconographic themes, breaking down the art of money into its various components. Some of these themes include: headdress, dynasty, divinity, and piety, each which is an indicator of the ruler’s wisdom, power, belligerence, or ostensible heavenly assistance.
The headdress is perhaps the most dominant theme since most of the coins feature portraits from the neck up of the ruler at the moment. The tradition of decorative head wear seems to have began with Alexander the Great, who was seen wearing a simple diadem band around his head. Other succeeding leaders, who wished to emulate Alexander’s headdress in the hopes of stimulating feelings of support and confidence in their people, were also depicted with now-decorated diadems, such as
Julius Caesar’s ring of laurel leaves. Later, the simple leaves developed into jutting rays, like the familiar sun-like radiant diadem seen in depictions of medieval kings.
The radiant diadem examples in the Portrait Coins exhibit demonstrates not only headdress examples to emulate Alexander, but also “divinity” examples to emulate popular images of divinities. The radiant diadem looks not only like the sun, but like a heavenly halo, a sure bet for allegiance among an emperor’s wealthy followers in Greece and Rome. Emperors are also depicted with other easily recognizable attributes of the gods as symbols of heavenly help and personal wisdom.
Dynasty and piety also play a large role in the iconography of the exhibit. In the Roman and Greek traditions, piety was traditionally not an external religious notion, but rather an emphasis on family gods and images of ancestors. Therefore, emperors would put images of their ancestors on coins, especially those who merited great respect among the people, to inspire the pious sense of a larger religious community and the idea that the emperor was a symbolic father to all his people.
Comments Wriston curator Frank Lewis, “The coins in the Buerger collection displayed in Portraits of Power are not pocket change.” Since emperors didn’t want their images stamped on anything that wouldn’t circulate among the rich and powerful of their followers, they only stamped their iconography on the highest valued of legal tender.
Therefore, since the actual material value of the Buerger collection is high and the coins are in excellent condition, each piece is worth thousands of dollars. Lawrence’s most recent addition to the collection, a final donation of 26 coins in early 2001, will also be displayed prominently among the other coins in the vast collection.
Ottilia Buerger’s lifetime habit of patient and careful collecting has left Lawrence with an immense and extremely valuable collection of coins that represent some of the striking images of the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine eras. The exhibition was designed to honor and feature her contributions, but her unfortunate passing last December will leave her legacy out of her reach and in our hands. The exhibit opens at 6:30 tonight, April 5, 2002.