Alan M. Stahl

title.none: Gannon, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage (Alan M. Stahl)

identifier.other: baj9928.0402.021 04.02.21

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alan M. Stahl,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Gannon, Anna. The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage: Sixth to Eighth Centuries. Series: Medieval History and Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. x, 230. $98.00 0-19-925465-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.02.21

Gannon, Anna. The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage: Sixth to Eighth Centuries. Series: Medieval History and Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. x, 230. $98.00 0-19-925465-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Alan M. Stahl

Medieval coinage is rarely included in iconographic studies, or in art historical surveys at all. European medieval coins are often regarded as formulaic, crude and irrelevant to contemporary work in other media in terms of both content and style. For many medieval coinages this assessment is warranted, especially for issues of the Early Middle Ages, which for the most part represent half-understood attempts to perpetuate the appearance of late Roman imperial coins. Anglo-Saxon coins have been viewed as an exception to the formulaic nature of early medieval coinage as many bear images not immediately derived from Roman numismatic prototypes. These 'Woden heads', 'wolf whorls' and 'porcupines' have often been considered Germanic or revived-Celtic motifs with more connection to the barbaric north than to the classical and Christian Mediterranean world.

There has until now been no systematic attempt to examine the origins of the imagery on early Anglo-Saxon coins and relate them to work in other media. Part of the reason for this has been the lack of a comprehensive corpus of surviving specimens and great uncertainty as to the chronology and geography of the production of the coins. Although neither of these deficiencies has been fully remedied, extensive research in the past couple of decades has clarified the basic range and ordering of the issues. Anna Gannon, of the Department of Coins and Medals of the British Museum, has fully mastered this difficult literature and in The Iconography of Early-Anglo Saxon Coinage makes this material available to an art-historical audience in a clear and systematic fashion. She places the coin images in the context of earlier and contemporary numismatic issues and also examines parallels to a wide variety of Anglo-Saxon art works, including manuscripts, standing stone crosses, objects from the Sutton Hoo Burial, and the Franks casket.

She arranges her discussion by iconographic element, starting with the profile bust which was the most prominent image on Roman imperial coinage and remained so on many Anglo-Saxon issues. Various attributes such as diadems, crowns and helmets as well as secondary objects such as crosses and scepters figure in her analysis and comparisons to other works. She moves on to facing heads, to full-length human figures, then to animals--both the obviously classically derived birds in vine-scrolls and the fantastic looking monsters that have elicited such imaginative explanations in the literature. All numismatic images are illustrated with adequate (if somewhat uneven) enlarged photographs, often set side-by-side with comparanda of other media. Coin issues are identified by the standard (and exceedingly confusing) numismatic references, and art historians in the future would do well to refer to types by Gannon's systematic illustration numbers.

In virtually all of her discussions of prototypes and relationship to other art works, Gannon situates the imagery of Anglo-Saxon coins squarely in a nexus of the art of the late classical Mediterranean world as adapted by European artists. She sees an underlying identification of much of the imagery with Christian themes and even goes so far as to suggest an ecclesiastic source for much of the patronage, an idea with little documentary or numismatic support. Images of wolves that had suggested ties to the Wuffinga dynasty of East Anglia to earlier commentators are seen by Gannon as derived from Romulus and Remus images and suggest to her papal and even Eucharistic connotations. Snakes and even centaurs follow the wolves into a Christian context, while 'Woden's head' is related to Roman as well as northern prototypes. Her comparisons, which are supported with wide-ranging references to the archaeological and art-historical literature, are for the most part reasonable though some are likely to spur rebuttals and further searches for parallels.

While Gannon's presentation makes the material available in a clear and orderly way for art historical comparisons, it does tend to remove the images from their numismatic and historical contexts. Only the iconographically relevant side of the coin is shown in any illustration; to learn what reverse accompanies an illustrated obverse would usually require recourse to the original numismatic catalogues. The coins are illustrated only in enlarged form, with no scale given (the illustrations generally run between 2 and 2.5 times actual size). While Gannon gives information on the current attribution for most pieces, it would be difficult to figure out from her presentation whether there are chronological trends in the imagery, or which images might be more typical of Northumbria than East Anglia.

The distortions caused by the removal of the coin images from their context is illustrated in the discussion on 'porcupines' that Gannon reserves for the end of her survey (pages 176 to 181). These coins live up to the 'barbarous' label often attached to early medieval issues--their imagery is so schematic that it is unclear what original depictions they derive from, and their place of manufacture has not been definitively set on either side of the English Channel. What is clear is that this series represented the dominant issue in terms of quantity of manufacture and monetary importance and seem to have been minted throughout the period represented by the more representational types. 'Porcupines' are found in enormous quantities in England and northern Europe, while many of the coins whose iconography is given detailed attention in the book are known in only a handful of specimens (a few noteworthy examples are published here for the first time on the basis of single exemplars in private collections).

Gannon's book presents a wide variety of hitherto understudied material in a clear and thoughtful way and will make a major contribution to the study of Anglo-Saxon art as a whole and the discussion of how the art of post-Roman Europe relates to a wide variety of sources and influences.