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.
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
30 “You shall make an altar to burn incense upon; of acacia wood shall you make it. 2A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth; it shall be square, and two cubits shall be its height; its horns shall be of one piece with it. 3And you shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and its sides round about and its horns; and you shall make for it a molding of gold round about. 4And two golden rings shall you make for it; under its molding on two opposite sides of it shall you make them, and they shall be holders for poles with which to carry it. 5You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 6And you shall put it before the veil that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony, where I will meet with you. 7And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, 8and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. 9You shall offer no unholy incense thereon, nor burnt offering, nor cereal offering; and you shall pour no libation thereon. 10Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year; with the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations; it is most holy to the Lord.”
11 The Lord said to Moses, 12“When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. 13Each who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the Lord. 14Every one who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering. 15The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the Lord’s offering to make atonement for yourselves. 16And you shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting; that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the Lord, so as to make atonement for yourselves.”
17 The Lord said to Moses, 18“You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base of bronze, for washing. And you shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, 19with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. 20When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn an offering by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water, lest they die. 21They shall wash their hands and their feet, lest they die: it shall be a statute for ever to them, even to him and to his descendants throughout their generations.”
22 Moreover, the Lord said to Moses, 23“Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred and fifty, and of aromatic cane two hundred and fifty, 24and of cassia five hundred, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil a hin; 25and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; a holy anointing oil it shall be. 26And you shall anoint with it the tent of meeting and the ark of the testimony, 27and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, 28and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils and the laver and its base; 29you shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy. 30And you shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. 31And you shall say to the people of Israel, ‘This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. 32It shall not be poured upon the bodies of ordinary men, and you shall make no other like it in composition; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. 33Whoever compounds any like it or whoever puts any of it on an outsider shall be cut off from his people.’ ”
34 And the Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), 35and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; 36and you shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. 37And the incense which you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be for you holy to the Lord. 38Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.”