An angel depicted on the French 20 franc gold coin
The design of the reverse side of this coin was created in 1791 by renowned French engraver Augustin Dupré. The motif of the portrayed “angel” is sometimes also referred to as “lucky angel”, “genius of freedom”, or “the guardian angel Genius of France”. The reason for the multiple names is because of the coin’s rich folklore and the uncertain interpretation of Dupré’s artwork. When the ruling aristocratic dynasty was deposed during the French revolution in 1789, new coinage was needed to proclaim the new order. This gave artists and engravers much more creative freedom, since the former coinage most often depicted the effigy of the ruler. Dupré, whose work was inspired by the symbolism of antiquity, won the design competition for the new currency.
It is believed that the “angel” Dupré designed is a “genius”, an ancient symbol of divinity which derives from Roman religion, in which it was believed that every human being, or a collective thing (humans, nature, animals), possessed a divine essence, or a soul. The depicted “genius” on the reverse of the new 20 franc gold coin could have been Dupré’s way of symbolising the “soul, or spirit of the French Revolution”.
However, reference to the depicted “genius” as “angel” came to life when a story about how Augustin Dupré himself escaped execution in the Reign of Terror, a period of violence that followed the French Revolution, because the “angel coins” he carried in his pocket protected him against harm. The designer was sentenced to lose his head on the guillotine during the French Revolution. According to legend, however, Dupré was able to bribe his guard with the Angel coin he carried in his pocket and made his escape. The story kept on being told over the years, building the legend of the coin’s “good luck” aura. The legend of the coin’s attributed powers became so pronounced that it changed the world history. It is said that Napoleon Bonaparte always carried an early French Angel in his pocket until losing it the night before the fateful Battle at Waterloo. This battle marked the beginning of his downfall.
Although none of these assertions is certain, what is definitely true is that the 20 franc Angel’s beautiful and mystical design has contributed to making it one of the most recognised and sought-after gold coins of the Napoleon series. The French 20 franc Angel gold coin was issued during three different periods: 1848-1849, 1871-1898, and 1899-1906.