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Calvin Commemoratives

This uniface plaquette was produced in bronze in 1909. It is 51mm by 39mm in dimension and was done by the German company Mayer & Wilhelm of Stuttgart to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Calvin’s birth. It has a left-facing bust of Calvin with an inscription reading: JEAN CALVIN | 1509-1564. M & W St. (the producer of this commemorative) is inscribed under the shoulder. This is a rare piece and not easily found. There also exists a similar piece commemorating the life and work of Martin Luther.

Early Medals of John Calvin

The commemorative medal first appeared in Italy in the 15th century and was the product of sculptor and engraver, Antonio Pisanello (1395-1455). These early works featured the portrait or bust of his subject along with a description of the person’s accomplishments and/or historical significance. The art of making medals quickly spread to Germany and the rest of Europe. By the late 17th century the making of medals was seen as an important state activity with many employing their own engravers.

From the time of the Reformation to the present, there were literally thousands of medals produced commemorating those men God raised up in the midst of darkness to preach the Gospel and spread the light of Jesus Christ throughout Europe. Chief among them are the more than 2,000 known medals depicting the German Reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546). While the contributions of Luther and Calvin to the spiritual reformation of Europe are of similar importance, Calvin does not enjoy the same proliferation of medallic representations as Luther. In cataloguing the medals of John Calvin, our list (available at the link found at the end of this article), including major variants, would put the number at just over 80 known works; a rather large disparity. It is also important to note that the original purpose of these medals was not to produce objects of worship and veneration, as was and is the practice of Rome, but to simply commemorate those men God used as instruments in bringing people to himself.

There are approximately 10 medals of Calvin struck during his lifetime. I only own two of these; one from 1555 and one from 1557.

This first medal was struck in bronze in 1555 and is 37mm in diameter. The sculptor is unknown and the reason for the commemoration is also a mystery. Obverse: Right-facing bust of Calvin encircled by the inscription: IO CAL GENEVENS ECCL PASTOR 1555 which translated means ‘John Calvin, Pastor of the Genevan Churches 1555.’ Under the portrait it is signed ‘H.’ but no historical record has been able to identify the medallist. Reverse: A picture of a man sowing seed encircled by the inscription: DAT DEVS INCREMENTUM, which translated means “God giveth the increase.” The obvious symbolism of this commemorative was to show Calvin as a “sower of seed,” which God then caused to grow throughout the Reformation and beyond.

This second medal was struck two years later in 1557 in both bronze and tin (pictured) and is 60mm in diameter. This particular example was looped in order that it may be worn around the neck or easily fastened to one’s clothing. The irony of this practice is that Calvin himself would most probably have abhorred the wearing of his image, as well as the producing of such medals in the first place. This is a uniface medal with a left-facing bust of Calvin encircled by the inscription: IOANNES CALVINVS E SVAE XLVIII QVOVSQ DOMINE A 1557 which is difficult to translate but means something like ‘John Calvin, a Master at the age of 48.’

John Calvin in Chocolate

Good things are still coming out of Geneva! Jacot-Chocolatier sells reproductions of the 1835 Antoine Bovy medal in chocolate, made from the original dies. Swiss chocolate which commemorates the life of Calvin—now that’s a treat!

John Calvin by Antoine Bovy

Charles Spurgeon, in Volume 2 of his Autobiography, tells of a time in the summer of 1860 when he spent an afternoon in Geneva with Dr. J. H. Merle D’Aubigne at the house of Mr. Lombard:

I am not superstitious, but the first time I saw the medal bearing the venerated likeness of John Calvin, I kissed it, imagining that no one saw the action. I was very greatly surprised when I received this magnificent present. On the one side is John Calvin with his visage worn by disease and deep thought, and on the other side is a verse fully applicable to him: ‘He endured, as seeing Him who is invisible.’ This sentence truly describes the character of that glorious man of God.

This is the medal given to Spurgeon that day. It is the “king” of all Calvin numismatic commemoratives. It is a large, solid bronze piece measuring 108mm (4.25 in) in diameter. It is considered the masterpiece of the famous Swiss medalist, Antoine Bovy (1795-1877).

Obverse: Prominent left-facing bust of Calvin encircled by the inscription: JOHANNES CALVINUS NATUS NOVIODUNI 1509 MOR TUUS GENEVÆ 1564, which translated means: ‘Born Noyon 1509 Deceased Geneva 1564.’ Reverse: A gothic cathedral motif encircled by an inscription reading: CORPORE-FRACTUS : ANIMO-POTENS : FIDE-VICTORE | ECCLESIÃ-REFORMATOR-GENEVà | PASTOR-ET-TUTAMEN, which translated means: ‘Weak in Flesh : Strong in Spirit : Faithful to the End | Reformer of the Genevan Church | Pastor and Protector.’ The larger fields are inscribed in French thusly: IL | TEINT | FERME | COME | S’IL | EVST VEV | CELVY | QVI | EST | INVISIBLE, which translated is the last portion of Hebrews 11:27, ‘He endured, as seeing him who is invisible.’ The two small panels on the pulpit are inscribed: HEBR. XI. 27; and signed GENEV | JVBIL | AN | 1835. The medal was cast to commemorate the 300th Anniversary of the Reformation in Geneva.

Two other medals were subsequently produced using the original dies of Antoine Bovy. The first, done in 1864, was to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Calvin’s death. It was done by Hugues Bovy (1841-1893). It is smaller in size (60mm) and an exact replica of the larger Bovy with the inscription H.BOVY. D’APRES A. BOVY added to the obverse and the inscription 27 MAI 1864 added to the reverse side.

The second was a restrike of the 1835 medal (108mm), and it was made to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. The Numismatic Cabinet of Geneva produced 73 specimens of this medal in aluminum (which was an extremely rare metal at the time) from the original dies. Proceeds from the sale of these medals went to benefit the Hospital Gourgas in Geneva. Being such a limited run, these medals are very rare.

Calvin’s influence on Christianity was, and still is, the greatest of anyone who wrote outside the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. By no means an overstatement of Calvin’s importance, Spurgeon continues his thoughts that were stirred that day in 1860:

Among all those who have been born of women, there has not risen a greater than John Calvin; no age before him ever produced his equal, and no age afterwards has seen his rival. In theology, he stands alone, shining like a bright fixed star, while other leaders and teachers can only circle round him, at a great distance “as comets go streaming through space” with nothing like his glory or his permanence. Calvin’s fame is eternal because of the truth he proclaimed; and even in heaven, although we shall lose the name of the system of doctrine which he taught, it shall be that truth which shall make us strike our golden harps, and sing, “Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever;” for the essence of Calvinism is that we are born again, “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

I preached in the cathedral at Geneva; and I thought it an honour to be allowed to stand in the pulpit of John Calvin…I did not feel very happy when I came out in full canonicals, but the request was put to me in such a beautiful way that I could have worn the Pope’s tiara, if by so doing I could have preached the gospel more freely…It was John Calvin’s gown, and that reconciled me to the idea very much. I do love that man of God; suffering all his life long, enduring not only persecutions from without but a complication of disorders from within, and yet serving his Master with all his heart.

To those who love the doctrines of grace, we owe a great debt to John Calvin; the man God used to bring his light out of the darkness.

Four Reformers

This medal is one of the most beautiful of the medallic reformation pieces ever done. It was cast in 1835 by Antoine Bovy to commemorate the 300th Anniversary of the Reformation in Switzerland. It is considered extremely rare in silver and although not common in bronze, it is obtainable.

Obverse: The Seal of Geneva connecting four busts of the Swiss Reformers: John Calvin, Pierre Viret, Theodore Beza, & William Farel. The circular inscription reads: JVBIL REFORMAT RELIG GENEV TERT SEC CELEBR AVG D XXIII AN MDCCCXXXV, which translated means ‘The Celebration of the 300th Jubilee of the Religious Reformation in Geneva 1835.’ Reverse: Two women symbolizing Faith & Reason, support a Bible on a lectern beneath a radiant dove. The circular inscription reads: BIBLIA FIDEI ET RATIONI RESTITVTA, which translated means ‘The Restitution of a Rational Biblical Faith,’ and signed A. BOVY INV ET F. It is 60mm in diameter.

The four reformers commemorated:

John Calvin (1509-1564): The acknowledged leader of the Swiss Reformation in Geneva.

Pierre Viret (1511-1571): The Swiss Reformer from Lausanne.

Theodore Beza (1519-1605): Calvin’s successor in Geneva.

William Farel (1489-1565): The founder of the Reformed churches in Neuchâtel, Berne, and Geneva.

Very few in our day appreciate or even understand the impact that these men have made on Western civilization. Much of our way of life owes a debt to the freedoms gained by these men, particularly Calvin, during the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

John Calvin by Sebastian Dadler

This medal, cast in both silver (pictured) and bronze in 1641, was done to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of John Calvin’s return to Geneva after his three and a half year exile. It is 58mm in diameter and was crafted by the famous German medalist, Sebastian Dadler.

Calvin was exiled from Geneva when both he and William Farel refused to serve communion on Easter Sunday to the “Libertines” ; those worldly church-goers who desired to live as they pleased. In his zeal to protect the purity of the Lord’s table, Calvin exclaimed that he would rather have his blood dye the wood he stood upon than dishonor the Lord. This position led to Calvin’s ejection from the city whereupon he took up residence in Strasburg; a city that had taken in thousands of persecuted Christians, primarily from France. He lectured here for three and a half years and it was also here that he married Idelette de Bure.

Meanwhile, Geneva was in turmoil under the rule of the Council that asked Calvin and Farel to leave. Letters were sent to Calvin begging for his return so that order could be restored in the city. Calvin remarked in a letter to Pierre Viret on the possibility of returning to Geneva that he would rather “submit to be crucified” or perish in some other horrible manner. But after numerous pleas, Calvin returned to the city that exiled him, to teach the gospel and bring reform to Europe through submission to the scriptures until his death in 1564.

This medal is struck in silver and is 60mm in diameter. Obverse: Right-facing bust of Calvin with inscription: IOANNES CALVINUS PICARD : NOVIODUN : ECCLES : GENEV : PASTOR; which translated means ‘John Calvin of Noyon Picardy Pastor of the Genevan Church.’ It is also signed ‘1641 SD’ beneath Calvin’s shoulder. Reverse: Woman representing fame blowing on a trumpet holding an open book encircled by the inscription: DOCTRINA & VIRTUS HOMINES POST FUNERA CLARAT; which translated means ‘Doctrine and Virtue followed after him with brilliance.’ ‘VIRTUS’ also appears on front of the plinth and signed ‘SD’ on right edge of plinth.

John Calvin by Arvid Karlsteen

If you were to hold this medal in your hand you would be able to both see and feel how beautiful it is. It is heavy in substance with a bright lustre that few medals have; it is one of the nicest of all the Calvin commemoratives.

The medal was done by the famous Swedish medalist, Arvid Karlsteen, and the story of its origination is somewhat unusual. In 1683, the French ambassador requested Karlsteen to create a medal to commemorate Pope Innocent XI. Some time later the English ambassador came to see Karlsteen and when he saw his work on the Papal medal, suggested that he should first do a medal of that great reformer, John Calvin. Just after this visit, however, the Swedish King, Charles XI, himself a numismatist and interested in medals, came to visit Karlsteen’s workshop and upon seeing the two unfinished medals, ordered the sculptor to do a medal of Martin Luther before the two others. That request was granted and the Calvin medal was finished soon after.

It was cast in silver and tin in 1683 and is 45mm in diameter. Obverse: Right-facing bust of Calvin encircled by the inscription: IOHANNES CALVINVS. M: and signed ‘AK’ under the shoulder of bust. Reverse: A hand coming out of the clouds holding a heart beneath rays of sun with the inscription: PROMTE | ET | SINCERE | IN | OPERE | DOMINI which translated means ‘Prompt and sincere in the work of the Lord.’ This was Calvin’s motto and an apt description of how he laboured tirelessly for reformation where the Lord would have it spread.

Commemorating the Geneva Academy and Calvin’s Birth

July 10th, 1509, John Calvin was born in Noyon, France. Of the 80 known medals commemorating the life and work of Calvin, several were produced to remember the work of the Geneva Academy started by Calvin and Beza in 1559. The ones that follow were done in 1909 by the M. M. Jacot Guillarmod Brothers of Switzerland. [As an aside, 2009 will mark the 500th Anniversary of Calvin’s birth and there are rumours at this stage that both Princeton and Calvin College will be issuing commemorative medals to mark the occasion. I’m sure others will soon announce similar plans but those are the only two known at the moment.]

This first plaquette was done in bronze and is 36mmX25mm. Obverse: Left-facing bust of Calvin with inscription: 1509-64 | CALVIN and signed A.J.G. along right edge. Reverse: Seal of Geneva with inscription: LE 5 JUILLET 1909 | LES GENEVOIS | RECONNAISSANTS ONT | CELEBRE LE 350EME | ANNIVERSAIRE DE LA | FONDATION DU COLLEGE | ET DE L’ACADEMIE | INSTITUES PAR | CALVIN which translated means: July 5, 1909, The Grateful Genevans Celebrate the 350th Anniversary of the College and Academy Insituted by Calvin. It is signed: JACOT-GUILLARMOD. FR.

 

 

This version was struck in bronze and is 24mm in diameter. Obverse: Left-facing bust of Calvin with inscription: 1509-64 | GALVIN (sic) and signed A.J.G. along back of portrait. Reverse: Seal of Geneva encircled with the Reformation motto: POST TENEBRAS LUX which means: After Darkness…Light. It is signed J. G. F. below seal.

 

This is a beautiful uniface plaquette made of silvered bronze which measures 40mmX28mm. Description: Left-facing bust of Calvin in circular bronze section with inscription: 350E | ANNIVRE | DU COLLEGE | INSTITUE PAR | J. CALVIN | GENEVE 1909 which translated means: 350th Anniversary of the College Instituted by J. Calvin in Geneva 1909. Signed: JACOT-GUILLARMOD FR.

 

 

 

 

This last example is a plaquette similar to the first one above which was first done in 1905 to commemorate the life of Calvin. Obverse: Left-facing bust of Calvin with inscription: 1509-64 | CALVIN and signed A.J.G. along right edge. Reverse: View of the city out of a window in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva with books, branch, quill and inkwell in the foreground.