St George and the Dragon by Pistrucci appeared on the first modern Sovereign struck in 1817
Pistrucci recalls in his autobiography that he was introduced to Lord and Lady Spencer by Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society. During their meeting, Pistrucci recorded that;
Cameo of St George by Nathanial Marchant (left) and the Cameo produced by Pistrucci in the ‘Greek style’ (right)
Later, when considering a suitable design for the proposed new gold Sovereign, Pistrucci suggested that the patron Saint of England would be a fitting subject, and this was met with the approval of William Wellesley Pole, Master of The Royal Mint. In addition to appearing on paintings and statues, the legendary battle had featured on coins before. In the twelfth century, for example, a depiction had appeared on coins issued by Roger of Salerno, Regent of Antioch.
However, there is little evidence that Pistrucci was inspired by these medieval depictions of the famous confrontation between the saint and the dragon. Pistrucci’s passion was for the classical, and it was said that he liked to “study Greek originals day and night”.
Detail from the Parthenon marbles depicting riders on horseback
However, the London Mint Office’s new Research and Development Manager Justin Robinson has proposed the theory that another classical work from the ancient world may have inspired the composition of Pistrucci’s iconic design for the Sovereign.
Between 350 and 353AD much of Western Europe was controlled by the Emperor Magnentius, a former military leader who had seized power from his predecessor Constans in in a coup. Largely forgotten today, Magnentius ruled over Britain, France, Germany and Spain for three years and, in the spirit of most self-made Roman Emperors he began to strike coins bearing his own image.
- Both coins depict three figures, a soldier, a horse and a vanquished enemy
- The soldier is depicted on horseback wearing a helmet with striking plumage
- The soldier wears a long flowing cloak that billows out behind him
- The horse is depicted wearing a bridle and rearing up on two legs before the enemy
- The soldier holds a spear in his right hand
- The vanquished enemy appears to be falling on his back under the horse
- The enemy is facing upwards and looking directly at the soldier above him
- Both coins have a diameter of 22mm
We may never know for sure exactly which elements inspired Pistrucci to create arguably the most famous coin design in history. However, the striking similarities in composition between Magnentius’ Gloria Romanorum and Pistrucci’s St George and the Dragon make it an intriguing possibility that the brilliant nineteenth century Italian artist was inspired on some level by the largely forgotten fourth century Roman emperor to create the enduring masterpiece that still appears on UK Sovereigns struck to this day.
Source: London Mint Office