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Attribute.  An object symbolic of the office, character or identity of the person – real or mythological – portrayed in a numismatic or medallic design. While most attributes are held in the hand, or about the body, others are shown nearby; or in the case of medallic art where the seated figure is so often used, the attributes are shown at the feet of the figure. Attributes are a special form of symbols and symbolism because of this ability to aid in identifying the person portrayed.

            Attributes and its related term, adjuncts, a lesser form of attribute often separated from the main device or figure, are widely used in sculpture and painting where they – along with headgear and clothing – are employed to give quick recognition to a figure that might otherwise be obscure.

            First used in religious art, where attributes were used to differentiate Saints, their use spread to other portraits in all forms of art. They are an effective design element for  coin and medal designers because of the limited space of these items.

            Cataloging Attributes.  In numismatic cataloging it is the duty of the astute cataloger to recognize the attribute and to correctly identify the person, the attribute and what it symbolizes. The wider knowledge a cataloger brings to the task the better. But for obscure or unknown persons portrayed it is necessary to consult reference works on symbolism which often identify the person connected with the symbol as an attribute.

            See also allegory and personification.


Word List  #4


Some Ancient Attributes

Bow and arrow of Cupid

Bow and quiver of Diana

Caduceus of Aesculapius

Club of Hercules

Comet of Julius Caesar

Dog of Diana Venatrix

Flute of Pan

Globe of Atlas

Grapes or Winepress of Bacchus

Horns (two bowed) of Diana

Lion’s skin of Hercules

Peacock of Juno

Trident of Neptune

Winged foot of Mercury

Some Modern Attributes

Caduceus of Medicine

Cap of Liberty

Keys of Saint Peter

Headdress of American Indian 

Magnifying glass of Numismatics

Orb of

Scales of Justice

Scepter of

Spear of

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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