World Coins

Changing beard styles reflected after ancient times

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.

Facial 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

In 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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The 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. 

In 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. 

Dr. 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. 

By 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. 

The 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. 

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