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Ten Powerful and Beautiful Women on Coins

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
 

Janina Żółtowska

A beautifully-toned Polish 2 Zlote from 1933. Image: NGC.
A beautifully-toned Polish 2 Zlote from 1933. Image: NGC.

The first woman on this list, depicted on the Polish 2, 5, and 10 Zlote coins between 1932 and 1934, is the 20th-century author Janina Żółtowska. The coins boldly present a bust of Żółtowska wearing a simple medieval coif headdress and a crown of clover leaves, surrounded by a radiant halo effect created by ears of grain. Numismatic artist Antoni Madeyski, who created this obverse design, chose Żółtowska as an ideal of Polish beauty. She was the wife of Ludwik Morstin, a Polish military attaché in Rome and a close friend of Madeyski.

There is some question as to whether or not the figure is actually Żółtowska. While the artist’s family maintained that the figure was Madeyski’s niece Wanda Syrokomskaya-Petraźyckaya, contemporary Poles believed that she resembled the medieval Polish monarch Queen Jadwiga. The fact that Madeyski designed and carved the Queen’s new sarcophagus in Wawel Cathedral only muddied the waters. A remarkable figure, Jadwiga ruled as the first female monarch of Poland from October 16, 1384, until her death on July 17, 1399.

Marianne

The obverse of the 1918 French Franc. Image: Heritage Auctions.
The obverse of the 1918 French Franc. Image: Heritage Auctions.

As the allegorical representation of the French nation, Marianne first came into being during the 18th century. While it is unknown when she was first mentioned, Marianne soon became the embodiment of the fledgling republic in the wake of its violent revolution. In the beginning, she often wore a Phrygian cap as an inspiration to all revolutionaries and as a representation of the fight against the monarchy. Later, after the monarchy was restored in the 19th century, she was shown wearing either a diadem or crown.

Marianne, who is often depicted with a bare breast to symbolize her feminine beauty, can most commonly be seen on the gold francs of the early 20th century and the silver Sower coins of the mid-late 20th century. At one point, she was so well known that she even inspired sculptor Adolph A. Weinman to create his Liberty Walking design for the United States half dollar.

African American Lady Liberty

2017 High Relief Gold Coin. Image: U.S. Mint.
2017 High Relief Gold Coin. Image: U.S. Mint.

For the United States Mint’s 225th anniversary in 2017, the U.S. Treasury officially depicted Lady Liberty for the first time as a classically beautiful African American woman on the 2017 American Liberty 225th Anniversary gold coin with a $100 face value. Crowned with a headband of stars, Liberty is intended to serve as an accurate reflection of America’s diversity. Also, as the U.S. Mint states, she was to embody the nation’s continuing quest for freedom and equality.

The coin was designed by Justin Kunz of the Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program and sculpted by Phebe Hemphill. This African American Lady Liberty garnered a record number of viewers during the coins’ live-streamed unveiling ceremony. Still, the coin was not as popular as was perhaps to be expected, most likely due to the high price of $1,690 (a $437 premium over melt at the time). Some collectors also claimed that this design represented too overt an attempt at political correctness. Internationally however, she was very well received, as demonstrated when the design won the 2019 Coin of the Year award in Berlin.

Queen Philistis

Sicily, Syracuse, Queen Philistis, Silver 16 Litrai. Image: Baldwins.
Sicily, Syracuse, Queen Philistis, Silver 16 Litrai. Image: Baldwins.

Known only from the coins of her husband, King Hieron II of Syracuse in Sicily, it is assumed that Philistis lived from 270 to 215 BCE. The coin shows her facing left and wearing a veil. Due to the extraordinary engraving skills of the Syracusan moneyers, the Queen’s beauty resonates down to the present day. Adding to her appeal, Philistis is most likely depicted as Arethusa, Syracuse’s patron nymph, especially since her portrait is quite similar to the famed coins produced by Euainetos and Kimon between the early 400s and the mid-300s BCE.

Native Woman CFA

1985 Cameroon 500 Francs Essai. Image: NGC.
1985 Cameroon 500 Francs Essai. Image: NGC.

While it is unusual for Western nations to depict native individuals on coinage, African Countries have no such hang-ups. In 1985, the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) contracted with the Atelier de Gravure des Monnaies et Médailles of the Monnaie de Paris (Paris Mint) to strike a 500 Franc coin. Worth roughly $6.50 after adjusting for inflation, this short-lived series (struck from 1985 to ’86) featured a strikingly beautiful native woman in three-quarters profile. While the Paris Mint only struck a limited number (reportedly 700,000), these coins were legal tender within all the Central African States Monetary Union participating countries.

Queen Sirikit

1980 600 B FAO CERES Medal Queen Sirikit. Image: PCGS.
1980 600 B FAO CERES Medal Queen Sirikit. Image: PCGS.

Currently, 92 years old, Queen Sirikit was born in 1932 and served as the current Queen Mother of Thailand. Before her husband, King Bhumibol, passed away in 2016, Sirikit was the world’s longest-serving queen consort and crowned the second queen regent in Thailand’s history. She was appointed temporary regent in 1956 when her husband retreated briefly to a Buddhist monastery. Sirikit was so successful as regent that the king crowned her as Somdet Phra Nang Chao Sirikit Phra Borommarachininat, which can be translated as “Her Majesty Queen Regent Sirikit.”

In 2012, Queen Sirikit suffered an ischemic stroke and subsequently withdrew from public life.

Over the 72 years since her coronation, Sirikit has appeared on 35 Thai coins, alone or alongside her husband. While not all the coins were well designed (most are downright ugly), some capture the Queen’s elegance and beauty.

Italia

Italy 1928 1 Lira. Image: NGC.
1928 Italy 1 Lira. Image: NGC.

Italia was first depicted numismatically between 90 and 88 BCE, on a series of silver denarii struck during the Roman Social War by the Marsic Confederation. Interestingly, while Rome would later co-opt her, Italia was originally a symbol of the Italic people living in the Italian Peninsula who did not have Roman citizenship. By the time of the Roman Empire, Italia had become an allegorical representation of the Italian people, similar to the French figure of Marianne above. When the Western portion of the Roman Empire fell and gave rise to the Gothic kingdoms, Italia quickly fell out of use.

It wasn’t until the rise of fascism in the 1920s, which revived Roman identity that she reappeared as a prominent numismatic feature on Italian coinage. During this period, Italia was shown as a stern bust with flowing hair in the distinct Novecento Italiano art style or as a full-length figure dressed in long robes. It was not unusual for her to carry a bundle of wheat and hold a plow in an allegory of Italy’s agricultural production.

More recently, on post-WW2 coins, Italia is usually depicted as a more restrained and classically beautiful figure.

Queen Victoria

1839 Great Britain Una and the Lion 5 Pound Gold Coin. Image: PCGS.
1839 Great Britain Una and the Lion 5 Pound Gold Coin. Image: PCGS.

Ascending to the throne in 1837 as a young woman, Queen Victoria’s portrait would be changed a number of times during her 65-year reign to reflect her image. A mere two months after her ascension, Victoria met with the Royal Mint’s Chief Engraver William Wyon at Windsor Castle to start the creation of her royal bust. While a number of minor modifications would be made in five variant groups, this Young Head bust type was used for 50 years. In this classically elegant portrait, Wyon presented the Queen in a clean, neoclassical style. Her hair held up in a plaited bun, she wears only a simple headband and no jewelry.

In later portrait types, like the Bronze Bun Head type released in 1860, Victoria wears a laurel wreath tied by a highly detailed ribbon.

Athena

Athens. AR Tetradrachm ca. 454-404 B.C. Image: Stack's Bowers.
Athens. AR Tetradrachm ca. 454-404 B.C. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

One of the more popular deities featured on ancient Greek coins, more often than not Athena was depicted as a martial goddess wearing a crested Corinthian helmet while holding an aegis shield and spear. Sometimes Athena is also shown holding a small, winged figure of victory in her outstretched hand. These conventions have been followed for over two thousand years and can be seen not only on ancient Athenian tetradrachmai but also on the silver bullion coins of Great Britain. Different polities employed varying skill levels when engraving the goddess, which resulted in many quite un-becoming portraits. However, states like Epeiros, Macedonia, and Side (Pamphylia) produced portraits of great beauty.

Mexican Winged Victory

1981 Mexico Gold Libertad. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1981 Mexico Gold Libertad. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

Seen most commonly on Mexico’s Libertad bullion coins of the 20th century (both gold and silver), the winged Angel of Victory radiates classical beauty. A symbol of revolution, she is also known as the Angel of Independence. As such, she is often used as a symbol of Mexico’s struggle against Spanish colonial rule.

The Mexico City Mint released the 1 Onza Libertad in 1982 with Winged Victory on the reverse, and just over 17.5 million examples of this type were struck between 1982 and 1995. All these show Liberty as she is on the Mexican Independence Victory Column, bare-chested and holding a wreath aloft in her right hand and a broken chain in her left. Despite a redesign in 1996 that shifted the viewer’s perspective to three-quarters profile, Liberty retained all her symbolism.

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Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University's Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies sustainable international development and conflict resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., he worked for Save the Children, creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the U.S. from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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