The iconic image of Saint George fighting the dragon on the British gold sovereign is arguably the most famous battle scene depicted in modern numismatic history. It was created by the Italian sculptor and engraver Benedetto Pistrucci (1783-1855) for the first modern sovereign in 1817.
Pistrucci arrived in London in 1816 and quickly found himself embroiled in a minor scandal after he was introduced to Richard Payne Knight MP, a wealthy scholar, author and numismatist. Pistrucci described him in his unfinished autobiography as “a great connoisseur in gems, cameos, and intaglios, bronzes, statues, medals, and antique vases”.
Knight was eager to show the Italian artist his “cabinet full of precious things”, but the meeting did not go well. When the collector proudly showed the artist one of his most prized possessions, which he described as “the finest Greek cameo in existence”. Pistrucci replied that it was actually his own work and that he had created it just six years earlier!
Unwilling to believe that an unscrupulous art dealer had duped him, a furious Knight refused to believe Pistrucci until the artist happily prepared a superior version in just a few days to demonstrate his mastery of the craft. Despite the accusations of fraud hurled at him, Pistrucci had not intended to deceive. Before arriving in Britain, he had innocently sold his work through a business partner, who had, without his knowledge, fraudulently passed them off to collectors as ancient artworks.
In his eagerness to set the record straight, Pistrucci quickly attracted the attention of many wealthy admirers who came to examine his work for themselves. Lucrative work soon followed. One request came from Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, who ordered a cameo of King George III cut in red jasper in return for a fee of 50 guineas. It was to prove a fateful commission.
When Sir Joseph later showed his friend William Wellesley-Pole the finished cameo that Pistrucci produced, the Master of the Mint knew that he had found the right man to design Britain’s new coinage. He wrote to his superiors at the Treasury to advise them that he had employed, “Mr. Pistrucci, an artist of the greatest celebrity and whose works place him above all competition as a gem engraver, to make models for the dyes of the new coinage.”
Because Pistrucci was Italian, Wellesley Pole could not appoint him as the Mint’s Chief Engraver as only a British subject could hold the position. However, when the role fell vacant following the death of Thomas Wyon in 1817, Pistrucci assumed the responsibilities of Chief Engraver without the title. When Wellesley-Pole asked him to propose a suitably majestic reverse design for the new gold sovereign, the artist suggested a dramatic image of England’s patron Saint fighting the dragon in the Greek style.
He was already familiar with the design, having recently been introduced to Lord and Lady Spencer by his friend Joseph Banks. Lord Spencer was a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, a British order of chivalry with Saint George as its patron saint. Pistrucci later recalled that;
“her ladyship … showed me a large model in wax of a St. George, done by Marchant, and said to me: ” My husband would like you to make a model in wax, of the same size and subject: but I should like it in the Greek style” as that was the style in which naked figures were done; and the mantle in this beautiful white, would have a superb effect.”
Pistrucci had been delighted to accept the commission and produced his model of Saint George and the dragon in the Greek style as requested. To capture the naked horseman’s muscle tone, legend has it that he invited an Italian waiter at Brunet’s Hotel in Leicester Square, where he was lodging to model for him.
In addition to appearing on paintings and statues, Saint George’s legendary encounter with the dragon had occasionally appeared on coins before. In the twelfth century, a crude depiction was used on a coin issued by Roger of Salerno, Regent of Antioch. In 1526, it appeared on the George Noble during Henry VIII’s reign, although production was not extensive, and there are few surviving examples. Later, the scene appeared again on two trial pieces, the Reddite and Petition Crowns created in 1663 by Thomas Simon, the engraver of seals at The Royal Mint.
However, there is little evidence that Pistrucci was inspired by medieval or modern interpretations of the famous confrontation between the saint and the dragon. His passion was for the classical, and it is said that he liked to “study Greek originals day and night“.
There was no shortage of classical Greek art in nineteenth-century London to inspire his composition. He most likely drew inspiration from admiring the collection of marble sculptures originally from the Parthenon in Athens. They were saved from almost certain destruction by Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He purchased the pieces from the Greek Government and turned down a generous offer from Napoleon to sell them to him. Instead, he donated them to the British Museum in London, where they continue to be admired by millions of visitors every year.
It is also possible that Pistrucci was inspired to create his composition by ancient coins, made centuries before the legend of Saint George arrived in Britain. In Ancient Greece, the King of Paeonia, Patraos (c335-315BC), depicted a horseman with a plumed helmet spearing his vanquished enemy as he falls under the hooves of his rearing horse. Even to a casual observer, the similarities in the composition of Pistrucci’s iconic masterwork created 2,100 years later are remarkable.
Six centuries later, the Roman Emperor Magnentius (c350-353 AD) also struck a coin with an uncanny resemblance to Pistrucci’s composition. Largely forgotten today, Magnentius seized power from his predecessor Constans in a coup and ruled over western Europe for three years. In that time, he struck coins in his own image, and one of them, named ‘Gloria Romanorum’ (Glory of Rome), depicts on its reverse a helmeted rider on horseback trampling a barbarian underfoot.
Both the Greek and Roman coins depict a rider on horseback wearing a helmet with striking plumage and a spear in his right hand. The horse is wearing a bridle and is rearing up on two legs before his adversary, who falls back whilst looking up at the victor towering over him. On the Magnentius coin, the similarities with Pistrucci’s Saint George are further accentuated by the appearance of a long flowing cloak which billows out behind the horseman and is fastened by a piece of fabric across his chest.
A further, startling similarity can be observed on the ground, depicted in both images as a horizontal line. On the Roman coin, a broken spear is also clearly visible sticking up out of the earth.
These uncanny similarities provide compelling evidence that Pistrucci saw at least one of these ancient coin designs. Many fine examples have survived to the present day, and so may have appeared in one of the private collections of classical antiquities that his wealthy customers and friends showed him. Perhaps he saw one in Payne Knight’s “cabinet full of precious things”. We also know that Sir Joseph Banks’ sister Sarah Sophia was an avid collector of coins and medals. Given the circles that Pistrucci was moving in, it does not require a giant leap of the imagination to suggest that he encountered an ancient coin with a similar composition that fired his creativity.
The similarities do not end with the design. Measuring 22 millimetres in diameter, the Roman coin of Magnentius is almost precisely the same size as the modern sovereign. This may have attracted the Italian sculptor’s eye as he considered the most effective way to compose an intricate design on such a small table.
Frustratingly, Pistrucci’s autobiography ends at the very moment he set to work on his model in the Greek style. Therefore, we are unlikely to ever know for certain which elements inspired him to create arguably the most famous coin design in numismatic history. However, the striking similarities between coins struck in classical antiquity, and Pistrucci’s Saint George and the dragon raise an intriguing possibility.
Did ancient coin designs inspire the brilliant nineteenth-century artist to create the neo-classical masterwork which still appears on sovereigns struck today?