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Strange symbol on medieval coins


Coinmaster
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Hi all, for an article I'm doing research about a strange symbol on medieval coins: the pointing finger. I've seen descriptions that the finger is pointing to ears, eyes, head and forehead or face, and written about several explanations. I found some interesting things, but first I'd like to ask you what you think. Have you seen this before? On what coins? How old is this symbol? Perhaps also on Roman coins?

Many thanks for your input!

PS: Below some examples, but more are most welcome!
 

Loseta edad media.jpg

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Solidus_of_Michael_II.png

INC-1870-a_Солид._Никифор_I_и_его_сын_Ставракий._Ок._803—811_гг._(аверс).png

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Pointing fingers feature a lot in the Bayeux Tapestry. The meaning changes depending on who is pointing at who. Pointing at yourself expressed surprise. I presume on coins this wouldn't be the meaning (unless they didn't expect to be there!) but I would guess it has a narrative purpose, like 'this person was made ruler by God'.

Edited by John Conduitt
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Very interesting question, @Coinmaster!  Your second example, and @John Conduitt's observation about the Bayeux Tapestry, are likely to render the following interpretation far from comprehensive.  But in the case of the later 14th-century hardis of Edward the Black Prince

 9244171.m.jpg

(https://www.acsearch.info/search.html?term=edward+black+prince&category=1-2&lot=&date_from=&date_to=&thesaurus=1&images=1&en=1&de=1&fr=1&it=1&es=1&ot=1&currency=usd&order=0#:~:text=https%3A//www.acsearch.info/search.html%3Fid%3D9244171), one numismatist read it as an attempt to render Edward pointing forward, as he does in a contemporary statue.  

But no, between your examples and @John Conduitt's point about the Tapestry, I can't believe that can be true in all, and especially earlier instances.

Edited by JeandAcre
Last word: I use "examples" too often!
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On 1/14/2023 at 8:55 PM, John Conduitt said:

Pointing fingers feature a lot in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Indeed a lot of pointing, thank for sharing! I found a reference to a book from Frederik Friedensburg. He wrote in 1922 three books about 'Die Symbolik der Mittelaltermunzen'. In this book on page 131-132 the pointing to the eyes supposed to be about the praying for salvation. I'm not convinced, although the picture that is referred to (from the Albani psalters) is striking!

screenshot_4782.png

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It was often done to show importance and speakership. The leading individual has this gesture to allow understanding of the scene for the viewer. It can also be a gesture of benediction. It can also be something else. I would think the exact context of each is needed in order to determine the true reason with certainty. Even then, multiple interpretations could apply

Edited by TheTrachyEnjoyer
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43 minutes ago, TheTrachyEnjoyer said:

It was often done to show importance and speakership. The leading individual has this gesture to allow understanding of the scene for the viewer. It can also be a gesture of benediction. It can also be something else. I would think the exact context of each is needed in order to determine the true reason with certainty. Even then, multiple interpretations could apply

In general I fully agree. On medieval coins like on the examples above, I think there's a specific meaning, and... it seems not about the eyes or head at all!

PS: In this article I explain the symbolic meaning of another old riddle on coins, the letter 'E'. 
https://www.academia.edu/45493646/_2021_De_letter_E_op_middeleeuwse_munten_verklaard

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Very cool article, @Coinmaster.  This time, I followed @DonnaML's advice and put this through Google Translate.  Dutch coins are an embarrassing crater in my acquaintance with medievals generally.  But, at risk of wallowing in the obvious, the Alpha and Omega of Magnentius is repeated in the issues (with immobilizations through the 12th century) of Herbert I, count of Maine c. 1015-1035, along with some later French feudal issues.  This one is an earlier immobilization, with an interesting variation of the obverse (H?)ERBERTVS monogram.  The Alpha and Omega ("w") are in the angles of the cross, as the ostensible 'Es' are in your Dutch examples.

image.jpeg.702cf648009472b1d0a5320cc769e925.jpeg

 image.jpeg.229d5d731ddc264ecf0ec4c421d76449.jpeg

Edited by JeandAcre
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Very cool, Anton!  Just copied and pasted the links onto a Google Docs document.

...I've been actively collecting late 10th-11th c. Frisian coins, along with the Low Countries and their neighborhood, in a westward progression from Brabant to Flanders to Picardie.  So I can get that much traction with the evident regional similarities --even if the motifs on the Dutch issues, even the episcopal ones of Utrecht, are already noticeably distinct.

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...Of course!  I do have one 11th c. episcopal one of Utrecht, a common type, but I especially like the city gate, replete with crenellated wall, on the reverse.

image.jpeg.e717568712be07d6b56b5d833d52cb1f.jpeg

image.jpeg.9562c092f0f46b64bfd919a04fc3a899.jpeg

It was a Dutch guy on this forum who helped with the finer points of the attribution.  Wish I could find that, but here on the Pacific coast, I'm not even done with my coffee!

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Wow, how great it is to be connected with this kind of time difference. At this moment it's 23.00 hours on Monday in The Netherlands, while it's 14.00 hours on the West coast!

Anyway, you'll find in these three publications the coins of your interest when you search via this link on the name 'Ilisch':
https://jaarboekvoormuntenpenningkunde.nl/jaarboek-op-artikel/! The above coin is in there as well (in the 1997-1998 publication). Enjoy!

 

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Wow, @Coinmaster, Alex, the Danish dealer with Alpha Numismatics (who I know from Biddr) sent me that link.  Bookmarked and downloaded onto the thumbdrive with half my life on it.  Sorry, I was too bleary to look it up!

@Hrefn, we got some Dutch up in the house!  You guys' erudition is relentlessly astounding.  Very fun that you're here!

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I expect you've found Grierson's explanation of the Byzantine pointing in DOC (vol. 3 part 1). First, p. 114:

image.jpeg.ca8e6048e83c5fd611523227eabc02dc.jpeg

Then p. 292, cited by footnote 347 above:

image.jpeg.d0c27967bd378e6191285f387d2706a1.jpeg

Seems quite convincing... in Byzantine the examples shown above, it means roughly what @John Conduitt suggested, i.e. "this imperial symbol applies to me." Here's an example on a Theophilus half follis:

image.jpeg.3f7bd92c57cd5daeaff575e7d9122591.jpeg

My favourite example of ancient pointing is Harpokrates. The name Harpokrates comes from the term Har-pa-khered, the Egyptian epithet for Horus as a child. He was a god of the dawn sun. Due to a misunderstanding of his usual gesture of holding a finger to his lips, which to the Egyptians symbolized childhood, Harpokrates was worshipped by the Greeks as the god of secrecy and silence.

Here he is combined with Sobek the crocodile god:

image.jpeg.91815b1819c7b24d24056c4ffbcb2e17.jpeg

Also under Antoninus Pius, but on a non-Egyptian coin, from Nicaea in Bithynia:

image.jpeg.ac78d671395a4e09ab1e7b4aeafa0991.jpeg

Diocletian:

image.jpeg.8c1ee10a59f32dbf2b2592964cd347fc.jpeg

And on a 4th century Festival of Isis coin:

image.jpeg.ed2e00b8cff0d36d56a368cc866960d8.jpeg

The same gesture is thought to represent silence or the prudent keeping of one's counsel on Claudius's Constantia coins as well as on Empresses' Pudicitia coins:

image.jpeg.90e3edb8d468154b1368a29acbaadb80.jpeg

 

image.jpeg.cb4b89f461e1bfe278d134431a12406c.jpeg

I wonder if there's any residue of that meaning on the medieval depictions?

Edited by Severus Alexander
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9 hours ago, Severus Alexander said:

I expect you've found Grierson's explanation of the Byzantine pointing in DOC (vol. 3 part 1). First, p. 114:

Many thanks @Severus Alexander! I haven't read that explanation yet. I think it's time to present you my thoughts on the matter.

In my experience with medieval coins, most of the symbols used can or must be explained in religious way. There is a tricky thing about the medieval usage of symbols, because I think these symbols can (and should) often be explained in two-fold. It seems people in medieval times where fascinated with the aspect of duality. Like: heaven-earth, dark-light, man-woman, young-old, night-day, good-bad, strong-weak, frontside-backside (of a coin), etc., etc. - you get the picture. Symbols used in the context of portraits of rulers (counts, bishops, kings) seems therefor also related to them as well. Perhaps this is logical in the way that they would see themselves as replacement rulers on earth, in name of God.

An easy finger-symbol or gesture is that or the 'blessing hand':

image.png.f6bdcb15ddafeac3be1e6762e861ad4e.png

image.jpeg.24d3062008ef2f01a998fe6faadcdf72.jpeg

image.jpeg.549946ccfcbadf8d9da48261cc0e6867.jpeg

 

image.jpeg.d4d974f89c22f2f999cf3a66c163a475.jpeg

 

Another one for example is the 'oath sign':

image.png.e339559aaa130906fcf6e557ba6a95c5.png

image.jpeg.8e94c1fe8d40996e58629aadbc7ae4ad.jpeg

In this example the two fingers are put on a little shrine (as to swear on it or on the bones of the saint that are kept in it):

image.png.2b7984447f3908f6ab2e97e93352b208.png

 

As to the pointing finger we can also find examples in manuscripts:

image.png.ee6b69659dede564cfa905a78ec598bf.png

image.png.23f928f55c4a97b1c69dedaac5b24c32.png

image.png.26b506f8caf426149c82ab1775832313.png

In the first example (see my second message in this topic) earlier researchers made a reference to the Albani psalter. Mistakenly they thought this was about the pointing to the eyes. I found a concrete text that refers to the above picture from the The Great Canterbury Psalter (f. 76r, psalm 43) where the text makes clear what this is about: 'Deus auribus nostris audivimus.' which means: 'We have heard, God, with our ears'. So, for the first time we know what this sign on (at least later medieval) coins is about: not the head, not the face, not the eyes, but.. the ears! The meaning of this can be found in some Bible texts. And that's where I was in my research..!

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