A medal may be defined to be a piece of metal, usually in the form of a coin, not used as money, but struck or cast for a commemorative purpose, and adorned with some appropriate effigy, device, or inscription. In the present article we are concerned only with religious medals. These are more varied even than secular medals, for they are produced not only to commemorate persons (e.g. Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the Saints), places (e.g. famous shrines) and past historical events (e.g. dogmatic definitions, miracles, dedications etc.) as well as personal graces like First Communion, Ordination, etc., but they are also often concerned with the order of ideas (e.g. they may recall the mysteries of the Roman Catholic faith, such as the Blessed Sacrament or the Divine Attributes), they are used to inculcate lessons of piety, are specially blessed to serve as badges of pious associations or to consecrate and protect the wearer, and finally are often enriched with indulgences.
In the early church
It was at one time doubted whether anything in the nature of a purely devotional medal was known in the early ages of Christianity. Certain objects of this kind were described and figured by seventeenth-century writers on the Catacombs, and a few such were preserved in museums. However, all of these items were regarded with much suspicion before the appearance of an epoch-making article by Giovanni Battista de Rossi in the Bullettino di Archeologia, Cristiana for 1869, since which time the question has been practically set at rest and the authenticity of some at least of these specimens has remained undisputed. A moment's consideration will establish the intrinsic probability of the existence of such objects. The use of amulets and talismans in pagan antiquity was widespread. The word amuletum itself occurs in Pliny, and many monuments show how objects of this kind were worn around the neck by all classes. Many early Christians no doubt did make use of devotional medals.
The letter of Gregory the Great to St. Mellitus about the dedication of pagan temples, preserved to us by Bede (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, I, xxx), supplies perhaps the most famous example. Moreover, we know that the same St. Gregory sent to Theodelinda, Queen of the Lombards, two phylacteria, -the cases are still Preserved at Monza- containing a relic of the True Cross and a sentence from the Gospels, which her son Adulovald was to wear around his neck.
This, however, and the practice of wearing encolpia, little pectoral crosses, lent itself to abuses when magical formulas began to be joined to Christian symbols, as was regularly the practice of the Gnostics. Hence we find many of the fathers of the fourth and later centuries protesting more or less vigorously against these "Gnostic" phylacteries (cf. St. Jerome, "In Matt.", iv, 33; P. L., XXVI, 174). But that Christians of good name did wear such objects of piety around their necks is certain, and it is consequently probable that Christian devices, should have been cast in metal for a similar purpose. In Africa (see "Bullettino di Arch. Crist.", 1891), the molds have been found in which little crosses were cast with rings to hang them by. It follows therefore that certain coin-like objects, for which there exists good evidence of their being actually discovered in the Catacombs must be regarded as genuine relics of the devotional practices of the early Church. Two or three of these are specially famous. One, which de Rossi attributes to the close of the fourth century, bears upon both faces the legend Successa Vivas, an "acclamation" which probably indicates that the medal was cast for a certain Successa to commemorate, perhaps, her dedication to God. On one side we see represented the martyrdom of a saint, presumably St. Lawrence, who is being roasted upon a gridiron in the presence of the Roman magistrate. The Christian character of the scene is shown by the chi-rho chrisma, the alpha and omega, and the martyr's crown. On the reverse is depicted the tomb of St. Lawrence, while a figure stands in a reverent attitude before it holding aloft a candle.
A second remarkable medal, which bears the name of Gaudentianus on the obverse and Urbicus on the reverse, depicts seemingly on one face the sacrifice of Abraham; on the other we see apparently a shrine or altar, above which three candles are burning, towards which a tall figure carrying a chalice in one hand is conducting a little child. The scene no doubt represents the consecration to God of the child as an oblate by his father before the shrine of some martyr, a custom for which there is a good deal of early evidence.
Other medals are much more simple, bearing only the chrisma with a name or perhaps a cross. Others impressed with more complicated devices can only be dated with difficulty, and some are either spurious, or, as in the case particularly of some representations of the adoration of the Magi which seem to show strong traces of Byzantine influence, they belong to a much later epoch.
Some of the medals or medallions reputedly Christian are stamped upon one side only, and of this class is a famous bronze medallion of very artistic execution discovered by Boldeti in the cemetery of Domitilla and now preserved in the Vatican Library. It bears two portrait types of the heads of the Apostles SS. Peter and Paul, and is assigned by de Rossi to the second century. Other medallions with the (confronted) heads of the two apostles are also known and a lively controversy largely based on these medals has been carried on regarding the probability of their having preserved the tradition of an authentic likeness (See Weis-Liebersdorf, "Christus und Apostelbilder", pp. 83 sq.) Certain supposed early medals with the head of Jesus Christ are distinctly open to suspicion. How far the use of such medal of devotion extended in the early Church it is not easy to decide. One or two passages in the works of St. Zeno of Verona have suggested that a medal of this kind was commonly given as a memorial of baptism, but the point is doubtful. In the life of St. Genevieve, which, despite the opinion of B. Krusch, is of early date, we read that St. Germanus of Auxerre hung around her neck a perforated bronze coin marked with the sign of the cross, in memo of her having consecrated her virginity to God (Mon. Ger. Hist.: Script. Merov., III, 217). The language seems to suggest that an ordinary coin was bored for the purpose, and when we recall how many of the coins of the late empire were stamped with the chrisma, or with the figure of the Saviour, it is easy to believe that the ordinary currency may often have been used for similar pious purposes.
Although it is probable that the traditions formed by the class of objects which we have been considering, and which were equally familiar at Rome and at Constantinople, never entirely died out, still little evidence exists of the use of medals in the Middle Ages. No traces of such objects survive remarkable either for artistic skill or for the value of the metal, and to speak positively of the date of certain objects of lead and pewter which may have been hung round the neck, with a religious intent, is not always easy. But in the course of the twelfth century, if not earlier, a very general practice grew up at well-known places of pilgrimage, of casting tokens in lead, and sometimes probably in other metals, which served the pilgrim as a souvenir and stimulus to devotion and at the same time attested the fact that he had duly reached his destination. These signacula (enseignes) known in English as "pilgrims' signs" often took a metallic form and were carried in a conspicuous way upon the hat or breast. Giraldus Cambrensis referring to a journey he made to Canterbury about the year 1180, ten years after the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, describes himself and his companions returning to London "cum signaculis Beati Thormae a collo suspensis" [with the tokens of St. Thomas hanging round their neck]. Again the author of Piers the Plowman writes of his imaginary pilgrim:
- An hundred of ampulles on his hat seten,
- Signes of syse and shelles of Galice;
- And many a crouche on his cloke, and keyes of Rome,
- And the vernicle bifore, for men shulde knowe
- And see by his signes whom he sought hadde
The "ampulles" probably represent Canterbury, but may have been tokens of the Holy Tear of Vendôme; Syse stands for Assisi. The "shelles of Galice", i.e. the scallop-shells of St. James of Compostella; the crouche, or cross, of the Holy Land; the keys of St. Peter; the "vernicle", or figure of the Saint Veronica, etc. are all very familiar types, represented in most collections of such objects. The privilege of casting and selling these pilgrim's signs was a very valuable one and became a regular source of income at most places of religious resort.
"Then, as manner and custom is, signes there they bought ... Each man set his silver in such thing as he liked", writes a fourteenth-century satirist of one of these shrines. Moreover, we find that the custom was firmly established in Rome itself, and Pope Innocent III, by a letter of 18 January 1200, grants to the canons of St. Peter's the monopoly of casting and selling those "signs of lead or pewter impressed with the image of the Apostles Peter and Paul with which those who visit their thresholds [limina] adorn themselves for the increase of their own devotion and in testimony of the journey which they have accomplished", and the pope's language implies that this custom had existed for some time. In form and fashion these pilgrims' signs are very various and a considerable literature exists upon the subject. From about the twelfth century the casting of these devotional objects continued until the close of the Middle Ages and even later, but in the sixteenth or seventeenth century they began to be replaced by medals properly so called in bronze or in silver, often with much greater pretensions to artistic execution.
With these leaden Signs should be noted the custom of casting coin-like tokens in connection with the Feast of Fools, the celebration of the Boy Bishop and the Innocents. The extant specimens belong mostly to the sixteenth century, but the practice must be much older. Though there is often a burlesque element introduced, the legends and devices shown by such pieces are nearly all religious; e.g., Ex Ore Infancium Perfecisti Laudem; Innocens Vous Aidera, etc.
Better deserving of attention are the vast collection of jetons and méreaux which, beginning in the thirteenth century, continued to be produced all through the Middle Ages and lasted on in some places down to the French Revolution. The jetons were strictly speaking counters, i.e., they were thin pieces of metal, mostly latten, a sort of brass, stamped on both sides with some device and originally used in conjunction with a comptoir (i.e., an abacus or counting board) to perform arithmetical computations. The name comes from jeter, through the form jectoir, because they were "thrown down" upon this board.
It soon became the fashion for every personage of distinction, especially those who had anything to do with finance, to have special jetons bearing his own device, and upon some of these considerable artistic skill was lavished. These pieces served various purposes besides that for which they were originally designed, and they were often used in the Middle Ages where we should now use a ticket or printed card. As might be expected, they tended to take a religious tone. Upon nearly half the medieval jetons which survive pious mottoes are found and often pious devices. Among the commonest of these mottoes, which however vary infinitely, we Might name AVE MARIA GRATIA PLENA; AMES DIEU ET LO (i.e. aimez dieu et louez le); IHS Son Gre Soit Fait Ci; Virgo Mater Ecclesie Eterne Porta, Domine Dominus Noster, etc. Often these jetons were given as presents or "pieces de plaisir "especially to persons of high consideration, and on such occasions they were often specially struck in gold or silver.
One particular and very common use of jetons was to serve as vouchers for attendance at the cathedral offices and meetings of various kinds. In this case they often carried with them a title to certain rations or payments of money, the amount being sometimes stamped on the piece. The tokens thus used were known as jetons de présence or méreaux, and they were largely used, especially at a somewhat later date, to secure the due attendance of the canons at the cathedral offices, etc. What, however, specially justifies their mention in the present place is the fact that in many cases the pious device they bore was as much or even more considered than the use to which they were put, and they seem to have discharged a function analogous to the Child-of-Mary medals, the scapulars, the badges and even the pious pictures of our own day. One famous example is the "méreau d'estaing" bearing stamped upon it the name of Jesus, which the famous Frère Richard, whose name is closely if not too creditably associated with the history of Blessed Joan of Arc, distributed to his followers in Paris, 1429. These jetons stamped with the Name, were very numerous and were probably closely connected with the apostolate of St. Bernardine of Siena.
Although roughly speaking it is correct to say that medals were unknown in the Middle Ages, still their introduction belongs to the early Renaissance period, and it is only when we consider them as a form of popular devotion, that we can describe them as of post-Reformation origin. Medals properly so called, i.e. pieces of metal struck or cast with a commemorative purpose, began, though there are only a few rare specimens, in the last years of the fourteenth century. The first certainly known medal was struck for Francesco Carrara (Novello) on the occasion of the capture of Padua in 1390, but practically the vogue of this form of art was created by Pisanello (c. 1380-1451), and its first developments were all Italian. These early Renaissance medals, magnificent as they are, belong to civil life and only touch upon our immediate subject, but though not religious in intent many of them possess a strong religious colouring. Nothing more devotional could be imagined than the beautiful reverse of Pisanello's medal of Malatesta Novello, where the mail-clad warrior dismounting from his horse is represented as kneeling before the crucifix. So again the large medal, in the British Museum, of Savonarola holding the crucifix, probably executed by Andrea della Robbia, portrays with rare fidelity "his deep-set glowing eye, his bony cheeks, the strong nose and protruding lips", while the reverse displays the avenging sword of God and the Holy Ghost hovering over the doomed city of Florence. Wonderful again in their religious feeling are Antonio Marescotti's (c. 1453) superb medals of San Bernardino da Siena, while among the series of early papal medals we have such masterpieces as the portrait of Sixtus IV by Andrea Guazzalotti (1435–95).
But it was long before this new art made its influence so far widely felt as to bring metal representations of saints and shrines, of mysteries and miracles, together with emblems and devices of all kinds, in a cheap form into the hands of the people. Undoubtedly the gradual substitution of more artistic bronze and silver medals for the rude pilgrim's signs at such great sanctuaries as Loreto or St. Peter's, did much to help on the general acceptance of medals as objects of devotion. Again the papal jubilee medals which certainly began as early as 1475, and which from the nature of the case were carried into all parts of the world, must have helped to make the idea familiar. But this was not all. At some time during the sixteenth century the practice was adopted, possibly following a usage long previously in vogue in the case of Agnus Deis of giving a papal blessing to medals and even of enriching them with indulgences. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that among the benediction forms of the Middle Ages no single example is found of a blessing for numismata. A pilgrim's "insignia" were often blessed no doubt, but by this term were only meant his scrip and staff, not the leaden tokens spoken of above. The story runs that the use of blessed medals began with the revolt of Les Gueux in Flanders, A.D 1566. One or some of these early Geuzen medals bore on the obverse the head of Philip II with the motto EN TOUT FIDELES AU ROI, and on the reverse a beggar's wallet and the words JUSQUE A PORTER LA BESACE. These were used by the Gueux faction as a badge. To this the Spaniards replied by striking a medal with the head of our Saviour and on the reverse the image of our Lady of Hal, and Pius V granted an indulgence to those who wore this medal in their hats.
From this the custom of blessing and indulgencing medals is said to have rapidly extended under the sanction of the popes. Certain it is that Sixtus V attached indulgences to some ancient coins discovered in the foundations of the buildings at the Scala Santa, which coins he caused to be richly mounted and sent to persons of distinction. Thus encouraged, and stimulated further by the vogue of the jubilee and other papal medals of which we have still to speak, the use of these devotional objects spread to every part of the world. Austria and Boherma seem to have taken the lead in introducing the fashion into central Europe, and some exceptionally fine specimens were produced under the inspiration of the Italian artists whom the Emperor Maximilian invited to his court. Some of the religious medals cast by Antonio Abondio and his pupils at Vienna are of the highest order of excellence. But in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries almost every considerable city in Catholic Europe came to have craftsmen of its own who followed the industry, and the tradition created by such Italian artists as Leone Leoni at Brussels, with men, like Jacques Jonghelinck and Stephen of Holland for his pupils, and by John de Candida, Nicholas of Florence and Benvenuto Cellini in France, was bound to have lasting effects.
The number and variety of the religious pieces produced at a later date, as Domanig (Die deutsch Privat-Medaille, p. 29) is fain to attest, defies all classification. Only one writer the Benedictine L. Kuncze's "Systematik der Weihmuzen" (Raab, 1885), seems to have seriously grappled with the task and his success is very moderate. As an indication of the vast complexity of the subject, note that in the thirty-first of his fifty divisions, the section devoted to medals commemorative of churches and sanctuaries of the Blessed Virgin, he enumerates over 700 such shrines of which he has found some record—the number is probably immensely greater—while in connection with the majority of these, special medals have at some time been struck, often, e.g. at Loreto, in an almost endless series. Under these circumstances, all that can be done is to point out a few illustrative groups rather apart from the common run of pious medals; those connected with places, confraternities religious orders, saints, mysteries, miracles, devotions, &c., are types with which everyone is familiar.
Struck and blessed as a protection against pestilence, these medals vary. Subjects include St. Sebastian and St. Roch, different shrines of the Blessed Virgin, and often a view of some particular city. Round them are commonly inscribed letters analogous to those depicted on the Saint Benedict Medal, for example +. z +. D. I. A. These and other series of letters stand for "Crux Christi salva, nos"; "Zelus domus Dei libera me", "Crux Christi vincit et regnat per lignum crucis libera me Domine ab, hac peste Deus meus expelle pestem et libera me, etc.
Medals commemorating Miracles of the Eucharist
There were a very large number of these struck for jubilees, centenaries, etc., in the different places where these miracles were believed to have happened, often adorned with very quaint devices. There is one for example, commemorative of the miracle at Seefeld, upon which the story is depicted of a nobleman who demanded to receive a large host at communion like the priest's. The priest complies, but as a punishment for the nobleman's presumption the ground opens and swallows him up (see Pachinger, "Wallfahrts Medafflen der Tirol", Vienna, 1908).
These form a very large class, but particular specimens are often extremely scarce, for they were struck to commemorate events in the life of individuals, and were only distributed to friends. Baptisms, marriages, first communions, and deaths formed the principal occasions for striking these private medals. The baptismal or sponsor medals (pathen medaillen) are particularly interesting, and often contain precise details of the hour of birth from which the child's horoscope could be calculated.
Medals commemorative of special legends
Of this class the famous Cross of Saint Ulrich of Augsburg may serve as a specimen. A cross is supposed to have been brought by an angel to St. Ulrich that he might bear it in his hands in the great battle against the Huns, A.D. 955. Freisenegger's monograph "Die Ulrichs-kreuze" (Augsburg, 1895), enumerates 180 types of this object of devotion sometimes in cross sometimes in medal form, often associated with the medal of St. Benedict.
Although not precisely devotional in purpose, a very large number of Papal medals are commemorate ecclesiastical events of various kinds, often the opening and closing of the Holy Door in the years of Jubilee. The series begins with the pontificate of Martin V, in 1417, and continues to the present. Some types professing to commemorate the acts of earlier popes, e.g. the Jubilee of Boniface VIII, are reconstructions or fabrications of later date.
Nearly all the most noteworthy actions of each pontificate for the last five hundred years have been commemorated by medals in this manner, and some of the most famous artists such as Benvenuto Cellini, Carsdosso, and others have designed them. The family of the Hamerani, papal medalists from 1605 to about 1807, supplied most of that vast series, and are celebrated for their work.
Other semi-devotional medals
Other types of medals have been struck by important religious associations, as for example by the Knights of Malta, by certain abbeys in commemoration of their abbots, or in connection with particular orders of knighthood. On some of these series of medals useful monographs have been written, as for example the work of Canon H. C. Schembri, on "The Coins and Medals of the Knights Of Malta", (London, 1908).
It has been said above that Agnus Deis seem to have been blessed by the popes with more or less solemnity from an early period, and similar forms of benediction were used in connexion with the Golden Rose, the Sword and Cap, and other objects given by the popes as presents. In the sixteenth century this practice was greatly developed. The custom grew up not only of bringing objects which had touched certain relies or shrines to the pope to be blessed, but also of the pontiff blessing, rosaries, "grains" medals, enriching them with indulgences and sending them, through his privileged missionaries or envoys, to be distributed to Catholics in England. On these occasions a paper of instructions was often drawn up defining exactly the nature of these indulgences and the conditions on which they could be gained. Several papers of this kind -one in favour of Mary Queen of Scots (1576) and others for English Catholics north of the Alps- have been preserved, emanating from Gregory XIII. One is printed by Knox in the "Douay Diaries", p. 367: The Apostolic Indulgences attached to medals, rosaries and similar objects by all priests duly authorized, are analogous to these. They are imparted by making a simple sign of the cross, but for certain other objects, e.g. the medal of St. Benedict, more special faculties are required, and an elaborate form of benediction is provided. In 1911 Pius X sanctioned the use of a blessed medal to be worn in place of the brown and other scapulars. The concession was originally made for the benefit of the native Christians in the missions of the Congo, but the pope expressed his readiness to grant to other priests who apply, the faculty of blessing medals which may be worn in place of the scapular.
Sources and references
- Brent, Cecil (1880). Archaeologia Cantiana. Kent Archaeological Society. p. 111.
- Opera, Rolls Series, I, p. 53
- see Forgeais, "Collection", IV, 65 sq.
- Potthast, "Regesta", n. 939
- see especially the work of Forgeais, "Collection de Plombs historiés", 5 vols., Paris, 1864
- Rouyer, "Histoire du Jeton", p. 30
- see Rouyer, "Le Nom de Jésus" in "Revue Belge de Numismatique", 1896-7
- Rondot, loc. cit., 60-62
- Fabriczy, "Italian Medals", p. 133
- Simonis, "Art du Medailleur en Belgique", 1904, II, pp. 76-80
- Weber, Frederick Parkes (1918). Aspects of death and correlated aspects of life in art, epigram, and poetry. p. 553.
- Sainthill, Richard (1853). An olla podrida. p. 333.
- Begni, Ernesto; James C. Grey; Thomas J. Kennedy (1914). The Vatican. p. 422.
- Forrer, Leonard; J. S. Martin (1904). Biographical dictionary of medallists. p. 392.
- Beierlein Munzer bayerischer Kloster
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Devotional Medals". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Domanig, "Die deutsche Privat-Medaille", Vienna, 1893, 3, pp 25–26.
- Franz, Kirchlichen Benedictionen im Mittelalter, II, 271-89
- Le Canoniste Contemporain
- Mazerolle, Les Médailleurs Français, 1902–1904
- the monographs by Pfeiffer and Ruland, "Pestilentia, in Nummis", Tübingen, 1882, and "Die deutschen Pestainulette", Leipzig, 1885