American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Drachmas Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money

The Art of the Medal


Medal making first appeared as an independent art form in 15th century Europe. As with coins, medals are two-sided metal objects-although without monetary function. However, their origins and development are closely tied to coinage.

During the Renaissance, in the 15th and 16th centuries, people rediscovered Roman antiquities, including coins. Inspired by their beauty, especially their use in portraiture, artists began to make medals that often showed the portraits of the great Italian rulers. Usually, medals were issued to commemorate significant events, such as weddings or victories in battle. However, early medalists were already using the medium for satirical comment and, by the late 19th century, artists used medals to express their criticism of current political events or social problems. The popularity of medals lay in the sturdy nature of these metal objects, which were frequently given as personalized gifts that allowed people, organizations or governments to represent themselves through a small-scale and relatively inexpensive art form. Medals were cast in gold as well as lesser metals, as determined by the recipient's rank.

By the late 18th century, medals were used by the U.S. and foreign governments to improve their relations with the Native American population. By the early 20th century, an America Renaissance of sorts led many famous sculptors to the art of medal-making. The contributions of Saint-Gaudens and other artists to medallic artistry also had a long-lasting effect on the coinage of the United States.