Values or frills?

Complaints often emerge against artistic works, like “it is nice and good, but could not its cost be spent on something else, something more useful?”. The question arose also in the second half of the 19th century, related to memorial medallions that represent rather high artistic values and rarity, among the Hungarian Doctors and Nature Scientists’ Society. This time, our virtual exhibition will introduce the memorial medals of roaming assemblies and a reward medal – issued by the Society – that you can find in the collection of the Piarist Museum.


In 1841, Ferenc Bene (1775-1858) and Pál Bugát (1793-1865) initiated the establishment of a scientific organisation, after a German model, which would hold assemblies regularly in Pest and other cities in the country. The Society of Natural Science started working due to this initiative, and they launched the roaming assembly series of the Hungarian Doctors and Nature Scientists’ Society. They held assemblies yearly between 1841 and 1847, and in every second or third year as of 1863 until 1914. They had four more roaming assemblies after the war; the last one was in Budapest in 1933. Although the Society and the assemblies were created in order to promote medical and scientific researches originally, they also dealt with studying and safeguarding architecture historical and archaeological records as well since the assembly of Kassa-Eperjes in 1846.

The German Nature Scientists’ and Doctors’ Society (Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte) that was established in 1822 made memorial medallions on the occasion of its assemblies, two of which can be found in the collection of the Piarist Museum too. The Hungarian Doctors and Nature Scientists’ Society issued its first memorial medallion on its third roaming assembly organised in Besztercebánya in 1842. Since then, the chairmen of assemblies or the organising cities regularly had memorial medallions made on their expenses or by fundraising. Participants received these medallions as a present or they could buy them. The last medallion was issued for the roaming assembly organised in Temesvár-Buziásfürdő in 1886; they made only pins after that.

705156_4.jpgPiarist friar and zoologist János Hanák (1812-1849), who also took part in the first roaming assemblies of the Society held between 1841 and 1847, worked as a notary at the assembly of Sopron. There are data about the number of participants, but the number of the memorial medallions issued cannot be concluded from these data unanimously. In general, most medallions were made out of bronze (sometimes gilded or silver-plated bronze) and a minor quantity of them was made out of silver. The assembly of Fiume in 1869 was a special occasion, when the number of participants was so high that more than 1200 medallions were coined; most of them were made from tin and a little part of them from silver.

742159_9_2.jpgDesigners of memorial medallions were renowned artists. The medal of Besztercebánya was made by local artist Heinrich Ernst Karl (1781-1854), the one of Kolozsvár in 1844 was made by Josef Bernsee (1802-1849) from Gyulafehérvár. The recto of the medal of Sopron (1847) and the medal of Marosvásárhely (1864) were made by Carl Radnitzky (1818-1901) from Vienna. The medal of 1886 (Temesvár-Buziásfürdő) was created by engravers Károly Gerl (1857-1907) and Elek Mayer (1840-1919) from Körmöcbánya. The Viennese Joseph Daniel Boehm (1794-1865) in the beginning, and then the Pragian Wenzel Seidan (1817-1870) who also worked in Vienna made the other memorial medallions of the Society’s roaming assemblies. As Seidan died in 1870, it might be doubtful if he engraved the medals of 1872 (Herkulesfürdő), 1874 (Győr) and 1876 (Máramarossziget). Nevertheless, the locations of assemblies had been determined much earlier, thus it was actually possible that Seidan was the designer or the engraver, as marks refer to that in all cases.

736294_12_1.jpgMembers of the Society used to commemorate famous people by the memorial medallions of roaming assemblies. On the occasion of the assembly in Sopron in 1847, a special memorial medal was made in honour of Chairman Pál Antal Esterházy (1786-1866), initiated by Ágoston Kubinyi (1799-1863). The medallion of the assembly in Budapest in 1863 commemorated Ferenc Bene, a founder of the Society, while the portrait of Chairman Ágoston Trefort (1817-1888), who was the minister of religious affairs and public education, can be found on the recto of the medallion of Temesvár-Buziásfürdő of 1886.


The memorial medallions that have different allegorical figures or ancient gods in their iconography take special places among the others. The figure of Cybele riding on a lion can be seen on the medal of Pécs (1845), and Florence is holding a wreath and Asclepius is keeping a rod with a snake on the two sides of the coat of arms of Sopron on its memorial medal (1847). The memorial medallion of the roaming assembly of 1865 (Pozsony) is also a beautiful example. On the recto, Hygieia (allegory of health, daughter of Asclepius, the god of medicine) and Prudence (the allegory of sagacity) are sitting on the two sides of a well. On the medallion of 1874 (Győr), Hermes is embracing Pallas Athena.

Despite the uniqueness and high-quality artistic value of memorial medallions, there were some members among the Nature Scientists, who protested against them. At the assembly in Herkulesfürdő (1872), Deputy Chairman József Szabó said that the Society had better spend the costs of medals on scientific monographies. Kornél Chyzer (1836-1909) wrote about the assembly medals in his work on the history of Roaming Assemblies between 1840 and 1890:
(…) Beszterczebánya was so enthusiastic that they coined memorial medallions (…), and they thought that these frills would be inevitable on the occasions of our future assemblies and they still insist on it. Yet, promoting healthcare or natural scientific work on the expenses of medals would have been much more useful! But in vain!” (Kornél Chyzer: History of Hungarian Doctors and Nature Scientists’ roaming assemblies from 1840 to 1890, Sátoraljaújhely, 1890, p. 40). With a reception like this, it is not surprising that no more memorial medallions were made after 1886, but just pins and reward medals were issued.

742054_24_1.jpgThe irony of fate is that one of the three award medals founded by the Society was issued in memory and honour of Kornél Chyzer, who called them “frills”, in 1910, making the palette of the Hungarian Doctors and Nature Scientists’ medals even more colourful. The reward medal made by György Vastagh Jr. (1868-1946) was awarded six times; our museum preserves the first awarded issue that was given to zoologist Lajos Bíró (1856-1931) at the roaming assembly of Miskolc in 1910.


Noémi Herczeg - Péter Borbás
Piarist Museum


Translated by Zita Aknai



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