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Human Figure

Human Figure.  The human form – face or figure – is the most used device on coins and medals. Portraits, heads, busts, partial figures, full figures appear on numismatic items more than any other class of objects and this has been so since the time of Alexander the Great – and one of his governors who placed his portrait on a coin, the first living person to do so. The term effigy applies to all views of the human body with the exception of the head, face or portrait.

Most every ruler since that early time has appeared on a coin; in fact, it is the only

surviving likeness of some rulers. We learn portraiture – what rulers and other famous people of history looked like – from coins and medals, most all other forms of contemporary portraiture having since disappeared. The first Renaissance medals, by Pisanello, were portrait medals. Thus we know what Columbus looked like only because of his portrait on a contemporary medal. We know what Ceaser or Cleopatra looked like for their portraits on coins.

Human beings recognize each other by characteristics, the face contains the most perceptive characteristics. Thus heads on coins and medals can show the most recognizable details. A bust on a small object reveals less facial details but more of the body or clothing. A full figure in such small size can reveal little facial characteristics, but more of the figure in a position recognizable for that person (in a sports position, or on horseback, for instance).

The human figure is also shown as a seated figure, or kneeling figure in addition to topical positions. As such they are often shown with attributes to aid identification, or subsidiary devices to add ornamentation. The designer of a coin or medal has a wide choice for the most appropriate position of the person being portrayed.


Cataloging the human figure.  The human figure is described by its position: facing, or turned to one side or the other (see chart). The length of the figure is also noted in describing: head, bust, half length, three-quarter length or full length. It is also described by its costume or covering – clothed, draped or nude.  See also portraits and portraiture.

If the human figure is not that of a person, once living or dead, but is more of an example of everyman, it is said to be representative, like a representative view. Such an image is symbolic of all people. In cataloging, the human figure must be identified or noted as exemplar, typical of all man.

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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