Sara Morris Swetcharnik

Portrait Medals of the Renaissance

Sara Morris Swetcharnik, 23 March 1994

For those who, like met love the kind of sculpture found on coins and other medallic objects, there is an extraordinary opportunity to see the finest exhibition of medallions ever assembled, from the finest era of its craftsmanship. Through May 1, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC is holding one of the most beautiful small exhibitions I have ever seen: The-Currencv_of_Fame:_Portrait-Medals-of-the Renaissance. Tastefully mounted in the West Garden Court of the West Building, this exhibition consists of over 200 medals from major European centers of production from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries.

Regrettably, this form of art often goes unnoticed, other than by coin aficionados. But to me, the art of the medallion has been a longtime interest. As a sculptor of bas-reliefs, I have always been fascinated by the artistic possibilities of this intimate genre.

More than just a way to decorate coins, medallic art has a fine esthetic pedigree and a fascinating history. Somewhat neglected in our own century, it flourished in the Igth century, but most of its finest samples date from the Renaissance. Fortunately, the portrait medallion is one of the most durable of commemorative objects. Fortunately, they were usually cast or struck in bronze, but occasionally in softer metals such as gold, silver, and lead. As a form of relief sculpture that could be easily reproduced and distributed, it has also appealed to collectors over the centuries. Patrons took great pride in commissioning highly skilled artists to make these lasting testaments. But seldom since the Renaissance have artists had the competence to render form both well technically and poetically such as we see in the examples shown in this exhibition.

The first and perhaps the finest of the major Renaissance artists to work in this genre, and certainly the leading figure in inventing the Renaissance form of medallic art, was Antonio Pisano (c. 1395-1455), also called Pisanello. In many ways Pisanello sums up all the great qualities in his work. His portraits combine lyrical, sensitive qualities with strong graphic image and composition. They invite you to ponder the qualities of the subject in a way that is much more intimate than other traditions of portrait painting and sculpture. His medals are considered by many to be unsurpassed artistically thruout the tradition that continuues until today. He is known for his painterly style and always signed his medals as Work of Pisanello the-Painter. He established the convention of featuring the subject's profile on the front, while the reverse was often embellished with heraldry, allegories, symbollic devices, narrative scenes, mottos, epigrams, or historical data. In both the medal of Cecilia Gonzaga an medal of Don Inigo de Avalos, for example, the inscription states plainly The-Work-of-Pisanello the-Painter (OBVS-PISANI-P.ICTORIS). The subject of the Gonzaga medal is portrayed on the reverse as an innocent and chaste young woman, which according to medieval legend could subdue the fierce and immortal unicorn. The unicorn is portrayed as a goat, a symbol of knowledge and a crescent moon hangs in the sky, a symbol of chastity. Interestingly, Gonzaga was one of the most learned young women in Italy, and chose to move to a convent to continue her studies rather than be married to the husband her father choose for her! But the meanings of the symbols on the reverse sides--such as the Inigo medalls mysterious image of a lake and mountains under a starry sky--occasionally elude interpretation.

Even though it may be argued that Pisanello was the greatest of the portrait medallists, the exhibition at the National Gallery offers many outstanding examples of other artists' work. The portrait medals on view continue the survey of the form from Italy on to Germany, France, England, and the Netherlands, from 1400 to about 1600 AD. Some of the subjects of particular historical interest are Lorenzo de, Medici, Queen Elizabeth I, the French King Henri IV and wife Marie de, Medici, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror--as well as Martin Luther, French Cardinal Richelieu, Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes and the artists Michelangelo and Albrecht Durer.

For those who are interested in history, this alone would prove a exhibition of great interest, but for the sheer joy of looking at small, exquisitely beautiful objects, I recommend it to all who love art. And speaking as an artist more than a historian, I also hope this exhibition will stimulate new appreciation for this art form, and help revive this worthy tradition.

Sara Morris Swetcharnik is currently sculpting a medallion of Kumari, the first elephant to be born at the National Zoological Park in Washington D. C..