The Portrait Medal, a Gift of Immortality
NEW YORK—Social media existed long ago. During the Renaissance, you could view someone’s profile and carry it with you in your pocket in the form of a portrait medal. Popular from the 15th to the 20th centuries, these objects fulfilled the same need that has today become a preoccupation—forging our identities, and sharing our attributes and our memorable events.
A medley of profiles and relations from times past can be seen in an extraordinary exhibit at The Frick Collection, “The Pursuit of Immortality: Masterpieces from the Scher Collection of Portrait Medals,” on view until Sept. 10.
The Italian Renaissance painter Pisanello started the genre, casting his first medal around 1438. On one side of the medal, we see the Emperor of Byzantium in profile. On the reverse, we see him on horseback.
At first glance, portrait medals may be confused with coins, but the closer and longer you look at them, the more fascinating they become. Instead of representing a monetary value, portrait medals carried social currency for famous, infamous, and ordinary people. They were commemorative in nature and commissioned to be made in any size, material, or weight.
Intimate Objects for Public Display
The first time art historian Stephen K. Scher held one in his hand, when he was an undergraduate visiting Florence, he “felt an immediate spiritual connection with its subject and his era, and the thrill at perceiving the artistry involved in its creation. … The moment was nothing short of magical,” he said in a lecture he gave at The Frick on May 10.
Scher is the world’s foremost private collector of portrait medals, as well as a curator and scholar. He and his wife, Janie Woo Scher, are giving a significant portion of their finest medals to The Frick Collection, in the museum’s largest acquisition to date. Consequently, the museum plans to become a center for the scholarship of portrait medals and to create a special gallery for the collection.
“It’s a perfect match for us,” said Ian Warpropper, director of The Frick, at the press preview. The superb quality of Scher’s medals beautifully complement the bronzes, statuettes, busts, and prints from The Frick’s main collection, displayed alongside the medals in the exhibition.
For example, a medal depicting Albrecht Dürer (1471–1578), one of the most famous printmakers of Europe, is shown next to one of his most well-known engravings, “Adam and Eve” (1504). A marble bust of Louis XV as a child of 6 is displayed facing a medal that commemorates the sculptor, Antoine Coysevox (1640–1720). The reverse of the medal (by Thomas Bernard, 1650–1713) depicts a personification of Sculpture itself, carving a bust reminiscent of Coysevox’s portraits of the French king. Coysevox produced four marble portrait busts after the death of Louis XV.
It was not easy for the curators to decide between the finest of the finest—selecting the 137 medals in the exhibition from about 1,000 in Scher’s collection. “What you see here is a selection over which a lot of sweat and tears were dropped,” said Aimee Ng, associate curator at The Frick, who co-curated the exhibition with Scher.
It is challenging to display medals to the public because they are generally small objects that are meant to be touched, held, and circulated among a group of friends, or sent from a ruler to his subjects. The Frick went through great pains to find the best solution for publicly displaying these intimate objects. One can see both sides of the medals, which are encased in layers of glass designed to prevent as much reflection as possible. A rod attached to the sides of one medal can be turned like a skewer, allowing the viewer to see the medal as it would appear if they were turning it in their hand.
A copy of one of Scher’s favorite medals, of the noblewoman Cecilia Gonzaga personifying chastity, was made for the public to handle. “The medal of Cecilia Gonzaga, who entered a nunnery instead of marrying an assigned suitor, celebrates her chastity with an allegorical female figure accompanied by a subdued unicorn. According to medieval tradition, the fierce animal could only be tamed by a virgin,” Ng said.
Desire for Immortality
These mini relief sculptures in the round were not considered objects of art necessarily because they had a function, mostly associated with awards. They could be as small as a dime and sometimes used as necklace pendants to be worn near the heart. Or if they were as big as a Frisbee, they could be hung on a wall as one would hang a portrait painting. The persons portrayed inspired the medals’ artistry. “Medals were deeply human objects as well as objects of art,” Ng said.
The portrait medal epitomizes in material form the emergence of the secular individual that germinated during the Renaissance. People no longer contemplated the afterlife as much as they did in medieval times, but rather wanted to celebrate their current achievements. “That led to personal biography, portraiture, and the invention of the medal,” said Scher at a press preview.
Medals were made to fulfill the desire for immortality of men and women who would otherwise disappear from history. “They celebrate power, beauty, successes and intellectual accomplishments, family status and dynastic links, personal skills, courage, hopes and aspirations, their most valued attributes, religious and philosophical beliefs, and significant events in their lives—births, engagements, marriages, deaths,” Scher said.
All of this wealth of information is “compressed either explicitly or by the obscure language of symbol, allegory, or emblem” into small disks of medal that can be replicated and transported far distances, said Scher.
From the time of the Renaissance to the 20th century, portrait medals diversified in style and spread to other parts of Europe. While the medals in Italy were idealized in classical style, in Germany artists were exacting in portraying the likeness of the sitter, showing more heraldic symbols on the reverse side. France produced one of the most celebrated and exacting medalists of Europe, Guillaume Dupré, sculptor to Henri IV. During the Dutch Golden Age in the Netherlands, many medals depicted the struggle for independence from Spain.
In England, medalists emerged later, in the 18th century. They used the method of striking instead of casting medals, which produced less pronounced reliefs than other European medals. In America, Benjamin Franklin commissioned the medal “Libertas Americana” to thank France for its role in the War of Independence.
A number of the medals on display were ready-made templates for different occasions and purposes, purchased in a shop and personalized to become the buyer’s own private medal. Two of these are memorial medals with inscriptions about a death.
“We don’t know who these people are, but that meant the world to somebody,” Ng said.
Gallery Talk at The Frick Collection
“Introduction to The Pursuit of Immortality: Masterpieces from the Scher Collection of Portrait Medals”
Saturday, June 10, 2 p.m.–2:30 p.m.
Free with museum admission; reservations not required.