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Vol 02 No. 04 April 1988

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About This File

We rarely find occasion to criticize the scholarship of others. test we be held to close account ourselves. There are, however, some assertions and interpretations that fairly scream for comment.

The March 8 issue of World Coin News contains, on page 30, an article by Henry T. Hettger titled "The Satyr and the Nymph". We are not acquainted with Mr. Hettger, and this would perhaps be warning enough for a prudent person to tread carefully; but we have not always been lauded for our prudence.

In his article, Hettger discusses the well-known Thasian staters with the Satyr/Nymph motif. He contrasts the Archaic example of this coin with its Classical successor. The former he characterizes as "The struggle between a muscle-bound man and a similarly constructed female in his arms. "The struggle between the sexes is portrayed on these coins majestically," he claims. The latter he sees as a "more dignified scene of the 'brides crossing the threshold' type".

Completely ignoring the chronological evolution of style, which forms the very basis of our understanding of ancient art, Hettger compares his "muscle bound" version to the Spartan autocracy and the "less muscular, conservative poses" to the Athenian democracy. Implying that the differing treatment is a matter of aesthetic choice, he suggests that this change may have come about because "the populace of Thasos protested the designs of the early issues or felt the need to change the designs to a more conservative pose." He goes on to assert that the theme is later "imitated by important painters.

Finally, Hettger takes G. Kenneth Jenkins (Ancient Greek Coins) to task for not drawing a comparison between the Satyr/Nymph motif on coins of Thasos and the Satyr and Nymph found on coins of Himera. It is this final outrage that causes one to scream - Enough! Comparing these two motives is like comparing a painting by Poussin to one by Rubens. Stylistically, they have absolutely nothing in common, in fact, they are quite the opposite. Herger's assertion that the design from Himera was influenced by the coin from Thasos. simply because the two coins each have a Nymph and a Satyr in their iconography. is absurd. It is akin to comparing donkeys with dinosaurs because they both have tails. 

The importance of coinage as a reflection of ancient culture, and as a major force in the art world of antiquity is a basic philosophical tenet of The Celator. The assumption that art from one time and place influences art in another time and place is unquestionably true. We have. in our series on Master Images, shown that there are certain motives which are frequently repeated throughout many centuries of numismatic art. This is not to say. however. that one can offhandedly link iconographic details as Mr. Hettger has done.

The study of art is not an exacting science, and we certainly have much to learn about the subjects and symbols we find. especially in ancient numismatic art. Mr. Jenkins may be numbered among the most respected authors of our time and his knowledge of the artistic treatment of images on coins is considerable. His "failure" to link the coins mentioned above is no failure at all. The stater from Thasos is an intensely narrative scene which was obviously designed to fit the circular space presented by a coin planchet, rondel, or a kylix tondo. It is indeed quite probable that this design actually came from a vase-painter rather than a Celator as Hettger claims. The coin from Himera presents an unemotional, nondescript votive scene which does not lend itself well to the circular space and may actually be copied from a rectangular panel painting or sculptural relief.

It is always fun to conjecture that coins were the source of designs for the parallel arts of painting and sculpture, but the mass of evidence is to the contrary. It is well to remember that the art on coins was public art, while the works of major painters and sculptors were usually private commissions for the wealthy. The latter became public only through the dedication of works by a patron. It logically follows that major innovations in style or treatment would evolve from the private to the public. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, as in the' coins of Greek Sicily, but the pieces from Thasos and Himera I fear do not fall into that category.

We encourage all types of viewpoints and applaud the efforts of new writers in this field: but let us not become so "popular" in our approach that we lose sight of true scholarship and take too lightly the work of those who have come before us.

We hope to see some of you at the Greater New York show late in April. Until then. keep in touch, enjoy the hobby and let us hear your point of view!



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