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Medals as a form of portable sculpture featured in exhibit

A bronze medal depicting Erasmus of Rotterdam dated 1519 and cast around 1524 is paired with a small oil on panel painting by Holbein, showing the importance of image in crafting the image of a scholarly figure in the renaissance.

Author images.

Continuing a trend seen in American museums exhibiting medals alongside Old Master paintings, the recent exhibit on Renaissance painter Hans Holbein the Younger at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City includes several medals to help put the northern master portraitist into perspective.

A bronze medal designed by Antwerp painter Quentin Metsys depicting Erasmus of Rotterdam, dated 1519 and probably cast around 1524, shows how portrait medals were a form of portable sculpture in the Renaissance and could help disseminate images more easily (and more affordably) than a painting.

Humanist, theologian and thinker, Erasmus was Europe’s first celebrity scholar, well-known for his philosophical and theological writings that were disseminated by the technological advance of the printing press.

“Although Erasmus believed that the written word was superior to the visual image, he used his portraits strategically to extend and deepen his influence,” the gallery explains, and artists including Holbein would ensure that his image would endure alongside his ideas.

A small oil on panel painted by Holbein around 1532 shows Erasmus, age 62, in three-quarter pose, wearing a black robe and hat, with his intellectual character suggested through his deep eyes. It was based on an earlier image, but “sensitively adjusted to convey Erasmus’s advanced age.” The gallery wall text adds, “His cheeks are more sunken, his forehead is wrinkled, and snow-white hair now peeks from under his cap.” While such portraits were often intimate gifts between friends and family, medals could be mass-produced and meet wider audiences.

The philosopher Erasmus commissioned the medal, and Metsys was inspired by ancient Roman portraiture, combining Erasmus’s likeness with that of the thinker’s emblem, the Roman god Terminus, known for resisting Jupiter, king of the gods. Consistent with most renaissance portrait medals, the obverse features a portrait of the subject — both Holbein and Metsys show him to be a serious figure — while the reverse depicts something to provide insight on the subject to the viewer. Here, the reverse shows Terminus, who in Christian thought was associated with the boundary between life and death.

As the gallery label explains, “Turning the medal over, from the portrait of Erasmus to the image of Terminus, encouraged consideration of the inevitable passage from life to death, the true terminus,” while the god’s depiction as stone pedestal with a head suggests the scholar’s “formidable character.” The inscription is summarized as stating, “His writings will give a better picture: His portrait taken from life,” reminding the viewer that although the visual portrait is reliable, Erasmus’s writings provide a fuller representation of the author.

Medals have helped art historians identify sitters in some of the paintings by Holbein and his contemporaries. As the catalog for the show explains, “The study of portrait medals, which unite a likeness, text (usually name and motto), and personal emblem in a portable format has illuminated the identities of a few illustrious individuals.”

Holbein would make use of a circular format seen on coins and medals in some of his paintings as well.

The fusion of image, idea and inscription blending in a single object was of special interest in humanist circles during the renaissance. Holbein’s work often uses jewelry, books and his interest in calligraphy and lettering make his portraits stand out from others in his peer circle. As Erasmus wrote in 1526, a picture is more graphic than words and generally makes a deeper impression, and through working with artists both in the painted and sculpted form, the scholar could help ensure that his visage was the most widespread likeness in his lifetime.

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