hidden europe 52

Motifs and Motivations: a Closer Look at Europe's Banknotes

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Euro banknotes (image © Alessandro Antonio Storniolo / dreamstime.com).


The trend in European banknote design is to focus less on people who have shaped a country's history in favour of key themes which help define the national narrative. But that's not a trend favoured everywhere, and in this article we look in particular at a new Scottish five pound note which celebrates the life and work of the writer Nan Shepherd.

When Belarus issued an entirely new set of banknotes last year, it perpetuated a Belarusian tradition of not featuring any politicians, poets or philosophers on its currency. Not even a hint of Lukashenko, who has for 23 years presided over the affairs of the country. Like earlier Belarusian banknotes, the seven new designs for 2016 feature symbolically important buildings — castles, a palace, a museum, a church and a library. The reverse sides of these notes are an invitation to ponder such cerebral themes as spirituality, the value of the printed word and the notion of the ideal city.

The people who are featured on European banknotes tell an interesting tale about a country’s self image and its brand. In many cases, it is interesting who is not featured on banknotes. Switzerland is just in the process of issuing a new series of banknotes, replacing six designs from 1995 which showcased Switzerland’s creative talent. Le Corbusier, Giacometti and others are being sidelined by more elemental designs, focusing not on Swiss achievements or people, but instead showcasing how water, wind, time, light and language have shaped the Swiss narrative. Switzerland, it seems, has come a long way since William Tell; his likeness has not been seen on a Swiss banknote for almost a century.

The trend across Europe has been for banknotes to focus less on people and more on themes, so emulating an earlier development in postage stamp design. In the case of the euro banknotes, the early decision not to include any historical figures averted potentially fractious debates about whether Plato might be more deserving of a place than Michelangelo.

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