Ugly As a Euro

Want to see bad relief sculpture? You needn’t look far. Take a euro out of your pocket.


What do you think of that map on the back? The leaders in Brussels gave their approval to the muddled, ugly design and no one said a word when the coin was presented to the world. Well, right away there were jokes: people pointed to the Scandinavian peninsula, which looked like a limp male organ, and said the euro was weak. But about the general design no one complained. A map is a map, isn’t it? Everyone just looked to see if his country was where it was supposed to be.
But the map was so crude and sort of crossed out with lines that it was best not to spend any time looking at it.

Well, what do you want, trouble-maker? It’s just a damn coin. As long as you can see the big number on it and the baker takes it for a loaf of bread, who cares what it looks like. Any old piece of metal would do. You must be some sort of art geek.

Art geek? Even the Neanderthal of Germany carved a horse-head on his cane. And did you ever see ancient coins? Some of them are beautiful.



The Greeks and Romans were the great masters of this kind of art, mainly because they used coins for propaganda as well as for exchange.


After them, coin and medal art went into hibernation for centuries. It woke up again in the reveille of the Renaissance with men like Matteo de Pasti of Verona (died 1451) and Vittore Pisano. They were real geniuses at the art. They made coins and medals like these:


The Castle of Rimini by Matteo de Pasti of Verona

pisano-nudes1Male Figures with Baskets by Vittore Pisano of Verona

The obverse of the euro isn’t the only offender. In our time coin and medal art has gone way down. Partly this is the result of the regularity imposed on coins: the relief has to be kept down so they can be stacked. But partly too, it is what happens when you let machines have their way. The coins are usually modelled three or four times the size of the coin and then reduced mechanically. This results in commonplace, unaccented sculpture and can never make a powerful impression.
Effective coin relief is concentrated, laconic. To make his “point” on such a small surface an artist must decide what is essential, indispensible to his figures and make that stand out. Which means that on the small coin their arms and legs, for example, or a girl’s shock of hair, might be twice their “real” thickness. If they are the same size as in the big model, they will necessarily look too thin and unimportant.

Actually, some euro anverses are very good. Here are two memorable designs for the new Latvian coins.




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20 Responses to Ugly As a Euro

  1. wrjones says:

    Thanks for showing the Euro – I will never have enough money to own one myself. It is ugly. I like the idea of doing a coin design but could you send me some gold so the end result will be glittery?

  2. erikatakacs says:

    The Euro is bland, but I remember how happy I was when someone brought me one from Europe. I still have it, and it’s the one shown here. My favourite one is the Roman coin. The Latvian Euro of the girl reaching for the stars is a very respectable effort to make it presentable.

  3. kimiam says:

    Some of those coins are gorgeous. I find carving and sculpting tiny things very difficult so I’m impressed.

  4. I learned a lot from this post. I loved the beautiful coins you posted. And thanks for letting us know that relief on modern coins has to be kept down because of being able to stack them.

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

  5. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Eileen. Do you have pretty coins there in the Middle East?

  6. 100swallows says:

    Kimiam: Were you in time to see my instructions on how to make a coin? I took it out after a day because I thought the post was too long. I’m sure you could make a nice one.

  7. 100swallows says:

    Erika: I don’t get that last almost Churchillian sentence. Why was there a problem making it presentable?

  8. 100swallows says:

    Bill: When you have your mold, just stuff it with paper (paper maché) and paint that gold. Governments have been pretending for years that paper was as good as gold.

  9. erikatakacs says:

    Swallows, just my English. The design of the Latvian coin is more imaginitive and artistic then your “ugly” Euro.

  10. Hiberniensis says:

    I like having the Euro for the convenience of it, but I do miss the old Irish coins, which were really beautiful. Look them up on Google or Wikipedia or whatever — they really were terribly well designed.

  11. Chris says:

    Hope I am not to late to add my bit to this interesting debate but as we still have our pound Here you would think things would be ok but there is something strange that goes in the planning process when people decide to change a design and it has to go through variouse committees, take the new English £10 note ( I say English because the Scots issue their own Pounds and pence e apparently it has a humming bird as part of the Design along the Galapagos Islands. Some Bright spark in a newspaper pointed out that there are no humming birds on the islands,,,never haver been~!!

  12. 100swallows says:

    Hiberniensis: I looked and saw a very good bull and a stylized hen and even a fine version of the harp. Are there others?

  13. Rich says:

    Hard to catch up with this prolific blog sometimes – still stuck with those coins. Their “stackability” you mentioned is just one more example of our utilitarian times.

    In Switzerland a gold coin named “Goldvreneli” is selling very well these days…. I ferreted (googled) out, that the lady on the coin derives from the Helvetia figure, which still adorns the Swiss Franc coins. Helvetia has very much of an ancient Greek look.

    As you spent some time in Basle, Swallows, perhaps you have seen her statue. Not too long ago she has been placed there at the banks overlooking the Rhine, in a sitting, pensive position, her shield and weapon laid beside her.

  14. 100swallows says:

    Rich: The Vreneli looks very nice, though not very feminine, does she? In spite of that nice braid and the flowers on her collar. But I guess that unisex look is Greek. If you just put an eighteenth-century wig on her she would do for a good-looking man. And you guys would call the piece the Goldhausi.
    No, I had never seen poor forlorn Helvetia sitting on the bank of the Rhine. She is very nice with her legs hanging and her weapons dumped. I must go there and give her a kiss.

  15. 100swallows says:

    Chris: Never too late to come in. Yes, the poor ten-pound note. But it isn’t worse than the bills by other countries, is it? I wonder who chooses the portraits of the monarchs to put on the bills. I bet the fabulous 10-pound Scottish hummingbird resembles that bird more than this picture, the Queen.

  16. Hiberniensis says:


    If you go to, you’ll find photos of various sets of coins from different countries. Just scroll down till you come to the Irish set. Click to enlarge.
    While we’re on the subject, the so-called ‘Series-B’ Irish bank-notes were quite nice as well. I think there’s a Wikipedia entry sepcifically on them, but the photos are rather small.

  17. 100swallows says:

    Hiberniensis: They are nice but the animals are sort of textbook static, don’t you think? I’d like to see them turned a little or rearing or snarling. These are standard views. I liked the way that peacock’s feathers come toward the viewer–that was novel. And the bull is well built but academic like the horse, the deer, and the fish. All the same, they are simple and clear, so you understand immediately what you are seeing.

  18. erikatakacs says:

    The coin collection of that site made me think some of the most unpretentious coins must have come from the Communist era. The design had to adhere to socialist ideals dictated by party functionaries. Just look at the Soviet ones. Although I have to admit I like the Lenin portrait, very nice work.

  19. Hiberniensis says:

    Well, I suppose they are fairly standard views, but that seems to me appropriate for a coin. It’s not an art-work that you’d sit in front of and look at for a period of time after all, just something you’d give the briefest of glances to as you took it from your pocket before handing it over. It’s the very simplicity and clarity — even plainess — of the design that appeals to me so much. I’ve generally found the designs of most other coins far too cluttered, far too busy, trying to fit too much into what is, after all, a very tiny space. The Irish coins may not have been especially glamorous — they were designed with the economic centrality of Irish agriculture in mind — but I think they combined functionality with a certain style much better than most other coins.

    • 100swallows says:

      Hiberniensis: Don’t get me wrong–I like their simplicity and clarity too. And I agree that they combined functionality with a certain style better than most. But why add more conventional pictures of anything to the world, even on a coin? A coin isn’t a picture–granted. But why can’t it be original too? You imply that the “economic centrality of Irish culture” would require a conventional (unglamorous) image but I tell you even the farmer would prefer a horse or cow that Leonardo or Michelangelo or Pisanello had made to one of these if given the choice. A little mind, a little spirit, is always appreciated.

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