money talks: mini-masterpieces at the MFA’s Ancient Coin Gallery

Forget bitcoins and plastic: immerse yourself in the real thing on display at the Ancient Coin Gallery at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The Michael C. Ruettgers Gallery is the only one of its kind in the U.S. devoted entirely to ancient coins. It’s also one of my favorite places at the MFA. Why? Comfy seats,  iPad displays, sliding magnifiers and well-written commentary make this peaceful, sparsely-populated gallery a luxurious and edifying retreat. It’s crazy, I know — I’m not the numismatic type either, but spend a little time there and you’ll see what I mean. It’s totally engrossing.

Instead of peering at some old coins in dusty cases, the MFA takes the extra step to draw you back into time by putting their thoughtful and well-designed display of these intricate, tiny artworks into context, linking the coins to art and history from the same period.

For example, there’s the “Render unto Caesar” coin mentioned by Jesus in his famous speech on whether Jews should pay taxes to Rome.


Jesus held a coin like this one and said: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Roman denarius with the head of the emperor Tiberius (image from

This was a time when rulers and their governments commissioned artists and highly skilled craftsmen to create something not just of monetary value, but of beauty; something that anyone could — and did — carry around in their pockets and purses. These are the timeless designs on the backs of some coins from the gallery…

octopus coin crop

bee coin crop

poppy coin crop

If these coins could talk, what would they say? Who made them, who held them, and who used them? What did they buy? Where were they spent?

top billing goes to the Dekadrachm (Demareteion) of Syracuse with quadriga, about 465 BC. This is the most famous coin in the room.

Most famous coin in the room: top billing goes to the Dekadrachm (Demareteion) of Syracuse (Sicily) with quadriga (chariot drawn by four horses), about from 465 BC. (image from, Sept. 20, 2012)

After thousands of years and changing hands thousands of times, these coins are a vital piece of what remains of these once-magnificent civilizations. What will remain of ours? Hopefully more than a heap of plastic credit cards.

It’s interesting to see how many women — goddesses and mortals — are featured on these coins. A far cry from our crappy and confusing Susan B. Anthony coin that no one uses!

Speaking of goddesses, on your way out of the coin gallery, be sure to stop and admire the statute of Juno in Gallery 207.

Juno, the patron goddess of Rome and the Roman Empire, is the largest classical sculpture in the United States, clocking in at a massive 13 feet (3.7 meters) and 13,000 pounds (5,897 kilos). I snapped this photo of the statue with a random man in the background so you could get a sense of her size:

juno mfa

Bought and shipped to a Brookline estate in the late 19th century, Juno stood alone in a garden for a century before she was carefully transported to the MFA through a skylight last spring:

After weathering some 100 years outdoors in New England, I’m glad she’s finally someplace where more of us can admire her.

Just don’t ask the guard while you’re there: “Juno which way the ancient coin room is?” (Sorry!)