Tag Archives: roman

Austrian Kalender Medailles

Calendar medals have their origins in the 17th century, when numismatic technology reached a level that could reproduce this level of detail.  In 1933 Austria began to release an annual kalender medaille, which continues.  Most of them are silver, but some years were released in bronze.

Calendar medals provided people with a quick pocket reference to any date in the year.  The earliest of these incorporate two tables, a Sunday table that shows the dates of each Sunday for all twelve months, and a Moon table that shows the dates of full and sometimes new moons.  The Moon table was said to be of particular use for planning journeys on nights with the potential for better lighting.  The last full Moon table was included in 1938.

The coins are grouped into the seven traditional, visible planets of the ancients, which include the Sun and Moon.  They cycle through these in a curious order, the reason for the particular order is unclear: Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars.  Nearly all of them feature related images of Roman deities and the Zodiac, which reflects the country’s history.  Essentially the German lands that fell under the Holy Roman Empire’s rule, the place is traditionally Catholic, while typical of royal lineages who consider themselves part of ancient, unbroken blood rights to rulership, references to the preceding empire served to establish their antiquity.  At the same time, most of them feature the dates of the four Moveable Feasts.

In some cases Janus takes the place of Jupiter; the Four Seasons or the Solar Chariot take the place of the Sun.  The Nazi Anschluss annexed the country in 1938, and did not end until 1945, with a return to autonomy for the country in 1955.  Notably, one divergence from Roman symbolism was 1947, when the year ruled by the Sun depicts a bearded figure and the phrase, “Es Werde Licht” (Let There be Light) a unique reference to the Christian creator, and in this initial period of Allied administration, “Cum Deo” (With God) was added beside the year.  Other exceptions include Athena in place of Saturn in the year 1965, and the next time around, a Sphinx aboard a sailing ship in place of Saturn as well.  In 1975 a rooster and an owl are featured for the Sun.  Throughout the calendar coins have exhibited modernity through austere Art Deco type, with the exception of the first three years of Anschluss where the Germans saw fit to impose a gothic font.  Increasingly the influence of modern art in overall design appeared through the seventies, but in 1980 and onward, we see the return of traditional mythological gods in an emphatic, neo-classical style, with several grouped years designed by single artists.

I share these as an interesting way to quickly scroll through the years.  They provide a way to absorb the passage of time, and the proximity of the past.  And through their design elements, they give us a kind of control against which to experiment with assumptions about culture and the graphics that they maintain as part of their myths.

 1933  1933
1934 1934Kal
1935 1935
 1936 1936
 1937 1937kal
 1938 1938kal
1939 1939Calendar
1940 1940kal
 1941 1941k
1942 1942Calendar
 1943 1943k
1944 1944kal
1945 1945kal
1946 1946
 1947 1947
 1948 1948kal
1949 1949
 1950 1950Kal
 1951 hp photosmart 720
1952 1952kal
1953 1953kal
1954 1954kal
1955 1955Kal
1956 1956cal
1957 1957kal
1958 1958kal
1959 1959Kal
1960 1960kal
1961 1961kal
 1962 1962kal
1963 1963kal
1964 H. K?ttenstorfer
 1965 1965SV
 1966 1966kal 
1967 1967
1968 1968kal
1969 1969kal
 1970 1970Kal
 1971 1971Kal
1972 1972Kal
1973 1973Kal
 1974 H. Köttenstorfer
 1975 1975kal
1976 1976kalab
 1977 1977kal
1978 1978Moon
 1979  1979kal
1980 1980kal
 1981 1981kal
 1982  1982akal
1983  1983akal
1984 1984kal
1985 1985kal
 1986 1986kal
1987  1987kal
1988 1988kal
1989 1989kal
 1990 1990kal
 1991 1991kal
1992 1992kalab
1993  1993kal
 1994 1994kal
1995 1995kal
1996  1996kal
 1998 1998kal
1999 1999Kal
2000 2000kal
2001  2001Kal
 2002 2002Kal
 2003 2003Kal
 2004  2004kal
2005 2005kal

The Signet

Seal of Roman Emperor Augustus (the Imperial “Whelping Sphinx”)

One of my favorite subjects of jewelry, the signet or intaglio ring can act like a time-capsule of personal identity.  They were once so common they are like the signatures of ghosts left to sprinkle ancient dwelling houses.  Like a stone fingerprint, or the 3-digit security code on the back of your cards, they were used to seal documents or sign them by pressing their mark into a patch of wax.  Their designs were usually carved intaglio into a gemstone, so their impressions left a raised relief design.  Later, as they fell into disuse, their metal would be melted down or reused, the carved stones tossed aside having little practical value, to be discovered in abundance by archaeologists or traded endlessly as pocket curios of the Classical world.  Throughout the later middle ages they became prized treasures of nobility, reset and collected, maintaining a reputation with their lost languages and mysterious figures to be magical.

These seals were often worn as rings, in order to conduct routine business, and are remembered today as the signet ring.  The contemporary signet frequently bears an inscription or a seal of some significance – though rarely in modern times are they a reverse imprint designed for wax, and if so purely nostalgic.  Signet rings still retain the suggestion of a claim to some kind of authority (if only the spectre of masculine authority), whether a masonic ring, a class ring or a family crest,  or at its most minimal, a heavy ring with a large flat and undecorated stone.

Minoan Signet Ring

The origins of signature seals are very ancient, dating back thousand of years.
In Mohenjo Daro, the neatly planned city on the Indus River sophisticated clay seals with writing have been found dating back nearly 5,000 years.  Ancient Mesopotamians sometimes preferred a cylinder seal that pressed or unrolled a small vignette onto wax and clay plates.  Ancient historians describe a Babylon where not a person was without a seal hanging around their neck.

Assortment of early seals.

In ancient Egypt, a glittering example of their characteristic design sense, scarabs served the same purpose.  The scarab, a symbol of the heart and the sun, served as one face, while the other served for carved intaglio writing and was typically flat.  Perhaps this served some religious significance – there was a strong belief that one’s name, ren, was a sacred thing to be protected – the rotating scarab-heart might have served to ‘cover’ the name.  The hole drilled for the purpose of making these rotatable led to a popularity, and continued production today, of using them as beads.  These are so abundant, typically in the sky blue faience color with crude approximations of hieroglyphs stamped on the back, that each of us has likely seen at least one in gift shops around the world.  The ancient form are so common that a person can find the real thing in virtually any art history museum’s collections.  

Egyptian Scarab Rings

The scaraboid gem form of a ring seal was spread throughout the Mediterranean world by the long trade rule of the Phoenicians, and became the business standard.  For non-Egyptians the rotating stone had no significance, and we find the seals mounted in fixed settings that did not move.  Signet rings became widespread among many cultures surrounding the Mediterranean, and deep into Central Asia, while seals in general are found in use throughout the world.  

Their function in business affairs created specialty shops in every trading port and city, the gem carver being a discussed occupation in the literary Classics.  A skilled carver’s quality and style enhanced security by being easier to authenticate visually, much the way engravers were physically responsible for the level of security in printed banknotes in more recent times.  The best seals were elaborate works of art usually cut in fine grained, quartz based gemstones, such as agates and jaspers, more inexpensive ones cut into softer scratch-able stones like hematite or calcite.   Many were also cut into glass.  Roman glassmaking was at one time traded throughout the known world, including seals, introducing waves of generic signs and intaglio stones that were purely decorative for trade.  Some gems served as signatory objects in a different way, as devotional objects, inscribed with a donor’s name, with the purpose of leaving one’s name at temples and shrines, others were bought pre-made with the temple’s image, to take away as a commemorative souvenir and a source of income.

Assorted Roman gold signet rings.


Silver Roman signet ring

Signet rings can give a more personal glimpse of economic activity than coins can provide.  They show that during periods of heightened trade where they will appear in greater number, the variety of similar amulet stones also increases, and this is where the story grows interesting.  During the particularly syncretic time period (300 BC-300 CE) of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, centered around Alexandria, many cultures lived side by side, where familiar cultural motifs of writing and themes of religion and myth began to merge and also form new colloquial, magical and cult themes.  We see fine examples of inventive figures alongside numerous rough replicas of them, peak examples of the gem carver’s craft alongside soft stones that are crudely cut with incantations, psuedo-writing, magic diagrams, incantations and palindromes.  There were symbols of newly forming religions, hybrids of converging cultures, including Christianity.  It is as though the intaglio signet had for many become a kind of personalized charm or amulet, an emblem of relocated  authority, or a statement of membership in a group, perhaps a kind of continuation of the Egyptian culture’s reverence over the wearing and display of one’s identity.

Typical Greek-Egyptian fusion, here of Anubis and Hermes with incantations.

Early Christian Intaglio

One of the greatest mysteries of antiquity is the multitude of Alexandrian signet stones that bear the unusual word ‘Abrasax’.  The meaning of the name remains unclear, though the letters add up to 365 (they did not have numbers yet) and it may simply mean ‘everything’.  These gems frequently depict an array of unusual characters that do not directly tie to any established religious context.  These appear with a variety of different figures that have in common only an appearance of being invented, or combined, as though the results of an effort to form a sort of catch-all multicultural figure of devotion.  The frequent inscription may be the reason the word ‘Abracadabra’ still lingers today, carrying with it the magical connotation of these gems. The Abraxas stones are uncanny and unique, and mixed in with their contemporaries comprise such a magical pile of jewels they have attracted ages of mystique and curiosity for the time they were created.

An anguipede, unique  to its specific region and time.

Signet stones continued to be in use for a few centuries after the decline of Rome.  At the end of the Sassanid empire, the rule of Islam produced its own abundance of carved rings using Arabic script, which is well suited to ornamental gemstone carving.  Among these stones carnelian was especially favored from North Africa to Mughal India.  The Mughals took gemstone carving like all arts quite seriously, most famously with the enormous 5×4 cm ‘Moghul Emerald’.  


The Moghul Emerald

The Moghul Emerald


Solomon Iran XV Glory to He who does not die

Through the middle ages elaborate seals continued to be used in by nobles and clergy but the use of gemstones in regular trade use, and signet rings in general declined.  Beginning in the Renaissance ancient intaglios, widely collected as curiosities, resurged as an enduring fad in jewelry, strung together in necklaces, remounted in rings, and put together as ‘charm’ bracelets.  Collectors also traded plaster imprints of the stones from their elaborate cabinets to expand their collections.

Intaglio collection remounted

Even as professional habits and modes of expression have changed, the signet ring’s mystique, suggestion of antiquity, or pedigree, and air of importance has retained a certain validity in use.  It lives on as the well known style of ring with its broad flat face, often still serving as a stock engraving blank or bearing a suggestive yet anonymous seal design, or a trophy of membership.

Contemporary Onyx Signet by Stephen Einhorn

The popular black onyx blank slate has its own curious place in the story, apparently inspired in some way by Victorian mourning jewelry, today the black stone is the most typical for a modern signet ring, though in history not much evidence of its use appears before this time.

All in all, the signet is a multi-cultural survivor carrying on a 4,000 year sense of meaning as its place among ornament endures.  When an actual insignia is used today, etching directly into the metal is the preferred signet, leaving the lost ancient trade of cutting intaglio gemstones to be practiced strictly as a preservationist art.

Adone T Pozzobon hand engraved masonic caduceus ring