English silver penny, Obverse: knot bust, with hand holding sprigby Unknown Anglo-Saxon artist

Unknown Anglo-Saxon artist

English silver penny, Obverse: knot bust, with hand holding sprig, 720–40, Silver, 12.13 x 12.38 mm; Weight: 1.05g, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, CM.1807-2007, © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge / Art Resource, NY

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Smelling Salvation

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Amongst the most beautiful of Anglo-Saxon coins, this early-eighth-century silver penny from Kent features a bust in profile, with elaborate drapery enriched by jewel-like pellets around its neck and shoulders. At the back of the figure’s head, on the left of the composition, we see flamboyantly looped and knotted wreath-ties. Although at first sight they may resemble a pretzel, the ties cross over to make an emphatic X: the first letter of ‘Christ’ in Greek. We may choose to identify in the bust an image of Christ himself, or the initial X as a powerful invocation of His title: either way, we are made aware that there is a message to be learnt—this is a sermon in miniature.

The figure holds up in his hand a plant identifiable on the right of the composition, bringing it to his nose to inhale its fragrance. This is one of a set of coins which explore the Five Senses, juxtaposing our concrete earthly experience—in this case, the plant’s fragrance—with what transcends our sensory perception and leads to closer relationship with God. The gesture of the figure raising the plant embodies the words of Psalm 141:2: ‘Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice’ (NRSV).

In addition to rejoicing in God’s creation by celebrating the delight of heady scents, and the healing virtues of some plants, we are here encouraged to meditate on incense as the smell which is truly pleasing to God, and on how God chose to indicate His presence through its fragrance. God meets us through the most ‘basic’ of our senses, the one which (science teaches) travels directly to our most primitive brain centres, in charge of emotions and memories. Fittingly, incense was one of the gifts offered by the Magi, thus underscoring what Bede describes as ‘the humbleness of Christ’s Incarnation’ (Homily 1.19 After Epiphany).

The coin also recalls the collection of Atonement Money (Exodus 30:11–16)—the half shekel for the Sanctuary paid by each adult Israelite to remind them of how God had saved them from bondage in Egypt and brought them back to the Promised Land. In recalling ‘the ransom given for [their] lives’ (v.16), they could reflect on the literal meaning of redemption: their ‘buying back’ by God.

 

References

Gannon, Anna. 2006. ‘The Five Senses and Anglo-Saxon Coinage’, in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, 13, ed. by Sarah Semple (Oxford: Oxbow Books), pp. 97–104


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