Editor's note: This is the second part of a story about beards on
coins, written by Steve Roach. The story originally appeared in the
May 2016 monthly issue of Coin World.
hair on coins documents history and personal style. Just as ancient
coins feature changing preferences, so too do later coins exhibit the
influence of the times.
Toward the Renaissance and beyond
the Byzantine Empire, hair was strongly influenced by Roman styles,
with nods to the Greek and Asian cultures that were incorporated
within the Byzantine Empire. As Roman influence would wane, men would
grow long beards, though under Constantine V (A.D. 741 to 775) beards
would be banned, only to return to favor a century later.
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Byzantine Empire is credited with forming the image type that today’s
pictorial representations of Jesus is based upon as the empire’s coins
established the standards and indicators of his appearance. The image
of a bearded Jesus with long hair was perpetuated only in the sixth
century, and before that Jesus was depicted often as a youthful
warrior or in the guise of classical god.
Renaissance Italy beards were a signifier of the concept of
individuality — both in presentation and thought — that is a hallmark
of the Renaissance. Especially toward the late Renaissance, beards are
seen on nearly all portraits and portraits can even be dated by the
beard styles used.
Alun Withey writes, “Until at least the late seventeenth century it
was widely believed that facial hair was actually a form of excreta —
a waste material generated by the body as a result of heat in the
testicles! But this also provides the link with masculinity. Since the
beard was linked to the genitals, it was an outward sign of virility
and masculinity.” That puts beards in a new perspective, indeed.
the 18th century, the invention of cast steel blades allowed for
sharper, cheaper and more durable shaving tools and eventually men
stopped wearing beards. Rather than the bearded Renaissance
individualism, the Enlightenment movement equated a clean face with an
open mind. Wigs were popular in this period and eventually, beards
would flow back into popularity in the mid-19th century, again
emerging as a symbol of masculinity.
Victorian craze for health supported beards as a sort of guard against
diseases that could enter the body through the mouth. The oddly shaped
beards of this period have many of the sinuous lines that today are
associated with the general aesthetic and Victorian movement of the
late 19th century.