Lesbos, Mytilene EL Hekte. (Circa 454-427 BC). Obv: Head of Athena wearing crested Corinthian helmet to right. Rev: Two confronted female heads, their faces overlapping; all within incuse square. Bodenstedt 55; HGC 6, 981; Boston MFA 1693; de Luynes 2555. Roma Numismatic 10/450,Hammer Price : 18.238 USD Condition: Extremely Fine. Weight: 2.56 g. Diameter: 10 mm. This coin seems like a perfectly ordinary hekte when the obverse is first viewed; it is only when the coin is flipped to reveal its highly unusual reverse does the importance and novelty of the type become apparent. Employing a simple but effective form of optical illusion, the reverse appears to show the same female portrait both to the left and to the right. The design is deliberately intended to confound the eye and engage the viewer’s attention in attempting to resolve both portraits independently of the other, which is of course impossible, thus presenting the viewer with a visual paradox. The image works by confusing the brain’s figure-ground perceptual grouping process by giving it contradictory cues, thus preventing it from assigning definitive edges to the observed shapes. As a result, the human visual system will settle on one of the portraits, facing either left or right, and alternate between them.
The importance of this type, both in terms of numismatic art and in the wider context of Greek art in general, cannot be understated. It is a thoroughly novel, and never to be repeated experiment in paradoxical illusion on the coinage of a Greek city-state.
The Greeks were certainly familiar with the concept of a visual paradox - Plato describes the ourobouros ‘tail-devouring snake’ as the first living thing; a self-eating, circular being: the universe as an immortal, mythologically constructed entity. They were also aware of the power of illusions - Greek architects would apply a technique known as entasis in the construction of their temple columns. Columns formed with straight sides would appear to the observer to have an attenuated appearance, and their outlines would seem concave rather than straight. Therefore a slight convex curve would be built into the shaft of the column, resulting in a swelling in the middle parts, in order to correct this disagreeable trick of the eye.
Why then, when they were clearly aware of the power of illusion and paradox, did Greek artists not employ such techniques? The answer most likely lies in the cultural shift away from the static representational art of the archaic period driven by new realistic and idealistic paradigms; artists now sought to demonstrate their skill through attempting to attain aesthetic perfection based on both observational study, and occasionally improvement of nature through idealisation of the subject’s features. Thus non-practical forms of optical illusion were most likely dismissed as curious, but unlikely to earn an artist everlasting fame.
It was therefore left to relatively modern artists such as Oscar Reutersvärd, who created the Penrose Stairs (also dubbed the impossible staircase), and psychologists such as Edgar Rubin, who developed the familiar Rubin’s vase (sometimes known as the Rubin face or the figure–ground vase), to explore the visual and psychological implications of these images which trick the brain.
The significance of this coin therefore is that it predates the work of both of the aforementioned celebrated ‘illusionists’ by well over two milennia, and demonstrates an appreciation and understanding of optical illusions as an art form, not just a necessary practical expedience.
|Price realized||6'500 EUR 15 bids|
|Starting price||1'600 EUR|