Monday, October 29, 2012

NOMISMA, the auction house in San Marino, has just completed its 46th auction. Bids closed over the weekend in the dual email/in person auction. Hammer bids as well as unsold lots can be viewed at There was a good showing of Papal States and Vatican coins/medals.

MAKING THE GRADE and Vatican Coins

I've been looking through the 2012 edition of "Making the Grade" published by Coin World. This takes 50 of the most popular U.S. collectible coins and posts pictures of the coins at various grading levels. There are color overlays to show various point of the coins that wear first.

It would be interesting if someone would consider such a guide for Vatican coins, or for that matter, world coins. The Italian coin appraisers continue to use a system with more general descriptors. (Perhaps this is a better way? Has so-called "objective grading" via services like PGS and NCS improved upon the trained eye of an expert assessor...some may argue...)

Anyway, congrats to Beth Deischer and the folks at Coin World for this great guider--maybe it will inspire numismatists who study foreign coins.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Pope Leo XIII and Social Justice

Pope Leo XII's spanned much of the second part of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century.

Across the world, the Industrial Revolution was taking hold, and as a result wealth, factories, and land ("capital") began to be concentrated on those persons who were competitive and adept at making profits reinvesting them into the business, and usually keeping a large profit for themselves.

Like many, Leo XII recognized some of the inequities of the capitalistic system, and in his writings he suggested that the ideal form of government might involved both capitalism and some ideals from a socialistic philosophy.

This medal, issued during his Papacy, has an uncommon presentation of the Cross.
There are rays that project out in all directions--suggesting the worldwide reach of Leo's papacy, and perhaps even their transmission into the future. One might also suggest the power of the Holy Spirit in this graphic but symbolic representation

Julius II, Saints Peter and Andrew Fishing from Boat

This coin (Double Fiorini de Camera), comes from the papacy of Julius II between 1503 and 1513.

Historians continue to debate the legacy of this Pope. While he added to the buildings of the Vatican and encouraged Bramante to begin building the new Saint Peter's, and encouraged Rafael and Michelangelo as well, much of the money for these efforts was raised through the controversial sale of indulgences, a practice that would lead to Martin Luther's departure from the Church several decades later. At the time the coin was minted--the turn of the 16th century--the world was abuzz with news from Christopher Columbus and other Spanish explorers who were bringing new and treasures from the New World. Again, in the years after this coin was produced, gold and riches from the New World were used to build St. Peter's, a matter of continued discussion.

This coin stands out among other representations of St. Peter. As we noted previously, then 5 Lire coin of St. Peter fishing in the storm, minted in the 1930s, showed St. Peter himself praying to God to save him in the midst of the gale and rain. This coin from the era of Julius II shows a calm sea and the two men cooperating in sailing the small boat.

We might imagine questions that aren't revealed in the Gospels. What brought Peter and Andrew in the boat together? What were they talking about? And where were James and John, the two other Apostles who were known as fisherman. The coin encourages us to give this some thought.

Images courtesy of Q. David Bowers and Stacks, October 2009

Saint Peter, as well as 20th Century, in the storm

Perhaps the most turbulent decade of the 20th century occurred when Pius XI was Pope. A scholar and athlete (he had climbed both Mt. Blanc and the Matterhorn), he became increasingly more and more involved with politics between World War I and World War II.

The scene of St. Peter in the Storm, the reverse side with St. Peter perishing in the rowboat, was minted on many coins in the decade before World War II.

This imprint shows St. Peter sitting alone in the small boat. The waves are choppy. The boat is capsizing. Although St. Peter has one oar in the water, he has placed the other one down in the boat, for the situation seems hopeless, and he raises his right hand beseechingly to heaven as the forceful gale pushes he garments in every direction. It will take the Lord's actions to save him.

Metaphorically, this was the state of the world between 1929 and 1945. People of faith believe God's actions also were instrumental in ending the war.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Vatican Academy of Sciences

In 1936 Pope Pius XI sought to include the best scientific minds of the time in the work of the Holy See and he established the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Members of this group include some of the best scientific minds in the world who provide consultation to the Church. Stephen hawking is one of the current members. Here is a list of members who have won the Nobel Prize and who have offered their expertise to the Church:

Nobel Prize Members

During its various decades of activity, the Academy has had a number of Nobel Prize winners amongst its members, many of whom were appointed Academicians before they received this prestigious international award. These include:
Other eminent Academicians include Padre Agostino Gemelli (1878-1959), founder of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart and President of the Academy after its re-foundation until 1959, and Mons. Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966), one of the fathers of contemporary cosmology who held the office of President from 1960 to 1966, and Brazilian neuroscientist Carlos Chagas Filho.
(from Wikipedia)

In memory of what the Church has done.....


This describes the reverse on the Pius 1945 Papal Medal: the land is empty, there are two figures on each side, walking or praying, and in the center a scene reminiscent of the Pieta shows an older bearded man about to give a wounded or starving man a drink. Part of the scene is a farm, and a horse looks out. One is reminded of the Sermon on the Mount--tend to the sick, bury the dead but the presence of the small farm suggests a mustard seed of reconstruction and even a peaceful future.

This and six stamps in a Prisoners of War Series show at least ten prisoners--men, women, and children--facing a luminous portrait of Christ who is in front of them, presumably in the sky. The blood red and the sepia stamps are especially unsettling.

There has been an ongoing controversy about Pius XII: did he stand up enough to the Nazis? Did he do enough when he found out about the extermination of Jewish prisoners? These historical debates cannot be answered here. But the stamps are tangible proofs of concern shown by the Church. I suspect these stamps and their meaning will become more important in the future, as those born in 1980 and beyond will lack the direct awareness of World War II that came from relatives, community members, and movies and newsreels. All of these made a deep imprint on the children and grandchildren of what Tom Browkaw has called “the Greatest Generation.”

To Remind us of War and to Work for Peace is a Papal Medal coming to us from 450 years ago. Pope Pius IV worked for a peaceful alliance between King Phillip and Spain. He is probably best remembered for his decision to reconvene the Council of Trent, which brought together, systematized, and declared the theology and rubrics of the Church. These would be looked at again when Pope John XXIII called together the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Standing in the center of the obverse of the medal is Lady Liberty, aiming her torch at the weapons of war as she destroys them. She is surrounded by a pile of helmets, swords, battle axes, and shields, and they are soon to be consumed by the conflagration.
Ironically, the next Pope would form an alliance with Venice and Spain and lead a crusade against the Turks.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Pope John Paul II Metal

under construction

Peace and Vatican II

Here is a stamp of the beloved Pope John XXIII

67 L aluminum coin
Obverse is crowned shield
Reverse is radiant dove immersed in rays


     This humble coin was meant to herald the second Vatican Council. However, in retrospect another vision is clear. In 1962 the United States and Russia came to the brink of nuclear war. Each country by then had large arsenals of hydrogen fusion bombs, more powerful by a factor of thousands than the atomic fission bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truly, the world might have been destroyed.

     Thirty thousand of these coins were minted, with many available to collectors today,
and I suppose few who own them link them with the Nuclear Crisis of 1962.

     Isaac Walton wrote, “miseries avoided are mercies granted.” Certainly, even with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the world has been shown great mercy since 1962 and this coin is a continuing reminder of God’s saving power in our world.

Pope John XIII Olympic Medal

Image Courtesy of Jencius Coins

The 1960 Summer Olympics were held in Rome, Italy, and Pope John XXIII issued an extraordinary medal in honor of the Olympics. Pope John has always been known as the Pope of Peace and he underscored the importance of the Olympics in bringing countries together. Tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States were very high, and technologies capable of delivering high megaton nuclear fusion bombs from one side of the world were effectively operational.

Pope John's humble wide-brimmed hat, one that could be worn outside on walks or in the sun, contrasts the Papal tiaras of Pius XII and previous Popes.

The latin phrase on the reverse means "Obedience and Peace." In Pope John's autobiography "Journey of a Soul," these themes occur across every decade of his life. The fill meaning of "obedience" to Pope John meant peaceful acceptance of God's will in his life. We continue to remember him and admire him for the serenity he brought to an on-the-brink-of-war world in 1960.

Monday, October 1, 2012

2008 Pope Benedict Medal

under construction

1997 St. Paul 50,000 Lire


5 Euro Coin
.925 Silver
2005 Sede Vacante
     In the United States, should the President become incapacitated or die, there is a constitutionally defined line of succession: first then Vice-President, then the Speaker of the House of Representatives, then the Secretary of State, and so on down the line through the Cabinet and I suspect after that there is even a list of more officials who would take over. The point is: the country is never left without an active leader. The Office of the President is always occupied, after the next person in line is sworn into office

      When the Pope dies, there is a different process. One of the Cardinals will have already been designated as the “Camerlengo”: this Cardinal prepares the Pope’s funeral and handles other housekeeping details that must be done in running the Vatican. He is not able, as far as I know, to sign treaties with other nations, issue encyclicals or other important documents, or in general wield the major powers of the papacy.

     Going back many centuries, there are Sede Vacante coins and even more recently Sede Vacante stamps. These are tangible reminders to the world that business is continuing. Although a Pope has just died, there will soon be an election and another Pope will preside over the Church. The Apostolic Succession, starting with St. Peter, will continue. The Italians have another way of saying this: “When the Pope dies, they make a new one.”

     On one side of this coins is the Coat of Arms of the Cardinal Camerlengo, and in the 2005 Conclave this was Cardinal Ratzinger. The back of the coin is a dove, reminding me that the Church continues to be under the protection and wise guidance of the Holy Spirit. The obverse side of the coin indicates the human being who is the temporary guardian of the Papal throne; the reverse reminds us not to forget Divine Providence which we may not see or hear but is tremendously powerful.

2005 Sede Vacante

For nearly a decade prior to his death in 2005, observers commented on the health of Pope John Paul II, many noting his "frailty" or instances of trembling, which some thought indicated Parkinson's Disease. Yet the Pontiff kept up with his demanding schedule, continuing weekly audiences, trips,   and even his 7:30 a.m. Mass with visitors.

On the eve of the Sunday of Divine Mercy, a favorite feast day on the Sunday after Easter, people in the United States heard about the Pope's faltering health and quick decline. By evening in Rome, Pope John Paul II had died, and had accomplished his goal of showing others how to accept the burdens of illness, pain, and approaching death in light of their faith.

After he died, all of the lights from the Papal apartment on the fourth floor of the Apostolic Palace were aglow, suggesting that the Holy Father was still with his flock in spirit.

Over the next week or two, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger eulogized Pope John Paul and said the Papal Funeral Mass. His gracefulness and compassion, say some, convinced some of the papal electors (Cardinals) that Ratzinger was much more than an enforcer of Catholic doctrine, but a priest with compassion who had the potential to become "il Papa."

During the conclave he was elected Pope, and chose the name Benedict XIV, after Saint Benedict, the founder of Western monastiscism, one viewed as keeping alive the Catholic faith in Europe during the Dark Ages. Perhaps Ratzinger saw this as a metaphor for the 21st century,


On September 26, 2009 a new group of Ladies and Knights of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre was investitured at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. The honorable heritage of this group goes back one thousand years, and its commitments and charitable mission now includes preservation of the Bascillica of the Holy Sepulchre and good works in the schools in Jerusalem.

The medal shown above is the last medal of Pope John Paul's pontificate. Earlier medals show him as a vigorous man, preaching, traveling, and exemplifying the lived life of the Gospel. In this last medal, his square and classic Roman features have been softened by suffering and by time. Rather than a scene showing the active outreach of this very great man, the profile here suggests meditation and reflection within. In looking back on his life with gratitude, even in the tremendous suffering of his last years he gave us a model of how to live the last days of our lives.

In all of the 1000 Papal Medals struck by the Mint of Rome for the Vatican, and catalogued by Mazio in 1942, I have been unable to find a Papal profile of a Pope in the last days of his life who is in such physical pain. Typically, these medals show a Pope at his best, confident and strong, and sometimes (even sadly) arrogant and imperious. For Karol Wojtyla, the school of human pain and suffering was perhaps one of his greatest associations with the Church Triumphant.

Perhaps the Pontiff himself chose to meditate on the Lord's Tomb as he neared the end of his life. Both his own suffering, as well as that of His Lord, and the expectation of imminent Resurrection and accompanying Empty Tomb, are communicated to us on this coin.

I suggest that this, his last Papal Medal, is singular when viewed among its many companion pieces.

20 Euro Coin 2002

Also in gold, this smaller coin displays the same impression of the Pilgrim Pope on observe. On the back is a detailed scene of four people loading up Noah’s Ark. The artist did a beautiful job of fitting in many details, including a menagerie including a chicken, monkey, owl, horse, and eagle. Everyone looks rushed, and one of the men is adding boards to finish one side of the ark. This message is not as hopeful as the one on the 50 Euro coin!

50 Euro Coin

50 Euro Coin 2002

     This coin, with a small mint figure of 2950 coins, has already become a sought-after collector’s item, for it is the first year in which Euro coins were put into circulation by European nations. John Paul II’s profile on the beautiful gold coin, with walking stick and suggestion of forward motion, certainly recalls the many trips this Pontiff took across the Eurpean Continent.
On the reverse is Abraham’s sacrifice. Why was this biblical scene chosen for this important inaugural coin? 

      The sacrifice of Abraham is central to both Christian’s and Jews. In the prayer during the Sacrifice of the Mass, we are recalled to remember the “sacrifice of Abraham, our Father in Faith.” Jews invoke this scriptural passage on the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) as once again they rededicate themselves to God. In this account, the Church Fathers recognized that this account prefigured the suffering and Passion of Jesus.

     Father Frances Perry--parish priest, missionary and scholar--suggests that a 21st century meaning of this story is to remind the European nations that they must forego and give up some of the things they hold dear in order to create a working union. Without such sacrifice and commitment by individual countries, the effort will fail. Too often we also forget that Abraham was diplomatpar excellence and before the Sacrifice, while he lived in Egypt, Abraham (then Abram) took the initiative and solved his conflicts with Lot when everyone lived in the land of Egypt: “Now Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold. And Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them dwelling together; for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together, and there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle...Then Abram said to Lot, ‘Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen; for we are kinsmen.” (Gen 13:2-6 and 13:9) One cannot think of a better hope for Europeans in the 21st Century. One can immediately recall both Isaac and Ishmael from the narratives in Genesis. From Isaac came the nations of Israel. From his brother Ishmael, who was banished with his mother Hagar, came the nations of Islam. This family tree reminds us that there was a time when these two sons dwelt together in the same family, a seemingly insurmountable task, unless one recalls that “with God, all things are possible”.

      The beauty of this precious and inspiring coin belies underlying savagery and violence. Most of us simply can’t imagine what would have happened next in the story, it is too terrible to behold. (The artist provides some comic relief: the biblical ram who was stuck in bushes has become a gentle lamb who is watching intently what is going on, perhaps with the thought that she might be next!) In the ancient world where Abram lived, child sacrifice may have been a common practice. Some scripture scholars suggest that God’s intervention through the angel was to remind all nations that He desired a clean heart, rather than holocausts of cruelty.

     Again, there is a clear communication to Europeans of the 21st century, as the coin conveys how goodness, commitment, and faith can co-exist with great evil--and can only be overcome with a full commitment to the Lord.
Since this was the most expensive Vatican Coin minted this year, this important message was intended to be sent around the world.

Pope John Paul II BiMetallic Coin