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Allegory and Personification

Allegory and Personification.  A design employing symbolism to express a metaphor in sculptural or medallic form. Allegory is employed in most every coin and medal design – other than portraits or realistic scenes (actual people, places, things) – thus its importance to numismatics cannot be overstated. Such design metaphors, coats of arms, national symbols, shields, mythical creatures, deities, trademarks, seals and symbols are all allegorical expressions appearing on numismatic or medallic items; but every nonexistent thing, as the device of a seated Liberty or standing figure, is an expression of allegory representing some concept the artist wishes to convey to the viewer.

Ideas, abstract concepts, things both animate and inanimate, can be expressed in art. When expressed as a person (or with human traits) this is personification; when shown by representative forms, this is allegory. (When shown by sample or example, this is exemplification.) Allegory is the expression of the cornucopia for Abundance, the plow for Agriculture, the masks for Drama, the hand torch for Olympics, the capsule for Space Exploration. Personification of music, for example, is the kneeling female playing a lyre on the reverse of the 1936 Cincinnati commemorative half dollar.

Allegory was the invention of the Greeks when they began to interpret ancient

mythological figures (as certain universal or philosophical truths). Even Christian monotheism accepted personification of these mythical deities, but it was the growth of novel entities and symbols in the middle ages that lead to the widespread use of allegory in European literature, philosophy and art. Over the years the use of design metaphors have greatly increased and are now universal. The use of allegory in numismatics began with the earliest coins and continue to the present.

In designing coins and medals the designer is seeking a visual substitute for the

concept he wishes to present. It is the responsibility of the designer that his choice

of allegorical design should be appropriate and convey the symbolism accurately to the viewer, in addition to being attractive and proper for the medallic medium. The allegory should be understandable by a reasonably intelligent person and not be so mysterious, abstruse or occult that it is inexplicable.

The designer has a small canvas to prepare his or her numismatic or medallic design, but successful artists have expressed vast concepts in this small space. For a designer to prepare an exceptional bas-relief design he should eliminate all unnecessary detail, choose a device, allegory or symbolism of the concept he is trying to convey, then execute the design with style, verve and authority.

The designer should recognize several pitfalls in creating a coin or medal design. He should avoid design clichés much as a writer abhors trite and hackneyed phrases in writing. The designer should study the heritage of coins and medals and not continually repeat what has been done before. The designer should innovate. Also the designer should not oversimplify. An example of this was the personification of two youthful runners on the 1984 ten dollar gold Olympic coins. The mediocre design was termed "Dick and Jane" by a critical public.

The numismatist's responsibility – particularly when cataloging each piece for permanent record – is to recognize the allegory and explain it when it is not obvious. What, the numismatic researcher or cataloger must ask and answer, was the symbolism the artist, engraver or medallist trying to tell the viewer?

The greatest numismatic and medallic designs in history were those in which the artist completely understood the use of allegory and personification and utilized these concepts most artistically in his bas-relief works.  See also design, symbols and symbolism.  


A30 {1971} Vermeule.

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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