The Princeton University Numismatic Collection has acquired a Byzantine gold coin from the late seventh century that bears the first use of the face of Christ on a coin.
Princeton's Curator of Numismatics Alan Stahl called the coin "one of the most beautiful and historically important examples of the image."
The coin was issued by Byzantine emperor Justinian II and is dated to 692 by current numismatic scholarship.
Before the reign of Justinian II starting in 685, the image on the front of Byzantine coins had been the head of the emperor, usually in military dress, with symbolic religious images relegated to the coin's reverse.Early in his reign, Justinian introduced a new coin which put Christ's depiction on the front and moved his own depiction to the reverse.
"The image of Christ on these coins, especially on the example just acquired by Princeton, is in a bold naturalistic style dramatically unlike the stylized linear portraiture of Byzantine coins, which was maintained for that of the emperor on the reverse," Stahl said.
The priority of figures also was reversed on the coin, with the front proclaiming "Jesus Christ, Lord, King of those Reigning," while Justinian's name appears only on the reverse, with the title of "Servant of Christ" rather than the usual designations of imperial power.
The coin was acquired by the Numismatic Collection in the Princeton University Library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.
According to Stahl, the issue of the Justinian coin with the image of Christ had major political repercussions throughout the Mediterranean world at the time. Within two years, the Islamic caliph Abd el-Malik introduced a reform that removed all imagery from Islamic gold and silver coins, a tradition that would last a millennium. In the West, the bold appearance of Christ on the coinage of Constantinople strengthened the opposition of the Roman church to what it viewed as idolatry in Byzantium and contributed to the developing schism between the churches.
The Justinian II solidus is catalogued and illustrated online in the database of the Princeton Numismatic Collection as coin 6188.
Editor's note: The purchase price was not disclosed, but reports suggest a wide price range of $25,000 to as little as $3,000 for similar coins.