Faith and Fortune on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage: exhibition review

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014; image by BlindMice Design

One of the earliest signs that I’d arrived in Birmingham in some academic sense was an invitation to the private view of an exhibition currently running at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage. This is less surprising than it sounds because it was being curated by two Ph. D. students of Professor Leslie Brubaker‘s, along with two other postgraduate students in the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, one of the former of whom, Rebecca Darley, is an old friend of mine from my days at the Fitzwilliam Museum. (The other three are Daniel Reynolds, Ali Miynat and Maria Vrij.) Thus it was that my name got on the list as an early medievalist who knows something about coins, and this has all been good for connecting (or reconnecting) me to people at Birmingham whose paths I otherwise wouldn’t immediately cross. Also, the exhibition is really good.

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680x696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680×696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown; image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

People have been amazed by what four postgraduates have been able to do with this exhibition; certainly, it’s one of the best numismatic displays I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a few, you know. The scope runs from Emperor Constantine I, when the new Christian faith got its first representations on metal, through Byzantium’s seventh-century crises (a period noticeable, among other things, for the beards given emperors on the coinage, not the main point of the display here but one can’t help notice) and those of Sasanid Persia in the face of each other and Islam, through to the various attempts by Islamic rulers to make something of the fiscal systems they had inherited and the currencies on which those operated, running as late as the Artuqid dynasty in the twelfth century. The coins have been very carefully selected; every case has a point to make and makes it clearly.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632. Scholars are in dispute over whether Heraclius’s beard here should be described as `egregious’ (Jarrett) or `badger-smuggling’ (Darley). Image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

That does mean that the weight of text to object seems high, though the text is not dense to look at and of course the objects are small. The text is, admittedly, not simplistic: the audience is assumed to be able to handle complex ideas if they’re set out clearly, and the layout and design of one of the cases takes a little working out, but in both areas that is not least because we’re dealing with visual and abbreviated packages that represent complicated theology in highly compressed form and with systems of representation that affect and influence each other (one of the things that the exhibition makes very clear). Still, while the visitors to a public viewing may not be a fair sample—I did spend a while arguing with Rebecca over whether one caption should say “overstrike” or “double-strike”, after all—there seemed to be no problem getting the point on the day, and I gather that there have been many comments in the guestbook about how informative it is, so it may be that this is pitched about right, in fact.

Entry to exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Entry to the exhibition; photo by Daniel Reynolds, used with kind permission

Anyway, it is well worth a look if for some reason you’re in the area of my workplace: not only is it interesting and thought-provoking in itself, and stylishly designed, but it is a great opportunity to see the Barber displaying items drawn entirely from its own excellent coin collection, a collection which is in some respects the best in the UK but unjustly under-used and little-known. It’s a problem I recognise from the Fitzwilliam that a museum with strong holdings in fine art, especially paintings that are large, unique and often of immediately-recognisable content, winds up with doubts about the exhibition potential of objects that are small, mass-produced and whose details are obscure of reference and often have to be peered at, and which often seem to be roughly-made. I understand those doubts, but they are unfounded: medieval coins can be fascinating and their obscurities can be made clear. Rebecca, Dan, Ali and Maria have done a great job of showing how and you could go and see. (In fact, if you were to go on March 8th, between 2 and 4, you could hear, as there will then be an ‘In Focus’ session with the curators. Book ahead! But even if not that, please consider having a look.) It runs till the end of November 2014.

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6 responses to “Faith and Fortune on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage: exhibition review

  1. When the engravers of the coins
    Put the noses on the faces
    On the coins of Emp. Heraclius
    What happened to the badgers
    That were hiding in the beards
    Beneath the noses on the faces
    On the coins of Emp. Heraclius ?

    • Beneath that nose there grows a beard
      To mark a man in any crowd
      And leave each viewer more than wowed
      But would (had they but closer peered)
      A badger have appeared?

      No stranger to the badger here
      Is likely to have wandered past
      At Old New Rome it still sticks fast
      And may be met on plain, in mere;
      its likeness should be clear.

      As to Newcastle is its coal
      Badgers to Asia Minor be
      Their importer, a fool is he
      They scurry round old Anatole
      And lurk in every hole

      And in one’s beard one to conceal
      Seems a hardly regal tactic
      Such a badger might go haptic
      Causing many a gash or weal
      With cost in kings’ appeal

      Secret smugglers of such creatures
      Must then quit our scenario
      No regal impressario
      So weights imperial features
      Whatever say preachers

  2. Even an emperor needs a beard (young Heraclius Constantine should get has act together… but fortunately it only takes a fortnight to grow a decent beard).

    … I’m out.

  3. Gordon, Opus 15, quarante-cinq, le dix.

    I have a little problem
    With Theodosius of the Hole.
    When he made a mole ratter
    The cockroach spoke for two.
    Johannes Kepler struck I (romans)
    Tyco Brahe cyined moi, (Corinthians — Adein).
    At two p.m., the babies grow up,
    Old England London gave the sign.
    Nown my chilren are grown
    No gown nor hawthorn in the bait.
    Where lather the dominus
    Roses prake by dour hour our paint.

  4. Pingback: Seminar CLXXI: Türks and Byzantine strategy | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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