A religious medal is a piece of some solid substance generally but not necessarily metallic, in the form of a coin, adorned with some religious inscription or image, usually fitted to be worn suspended from the neck. Such devotional medals have been in use from the early Christian ages. St. Zeno (4th century) cited the wearing of medals as an example of the Church's practice of sanctifying pagan usages. He also referred to a custom of giving newly baptized Christians a medal to commemorate their baptism. A 5th-century life of St. Geneviève tells of St. Germain bestowing on her a medal marked with the sign of the cross, which was to be a memorial to her of her vow of virginity.
One medal bearing images of SS. Peter and Paul facing one another has been ascribed to the 2d century. Another, portraying a martyr, presumed to be St. Lawrence, on a grill, is assigned to the late 4th century. There are many others bearing religious images and dating from the 4th through the 8th century. Often coins of the late empire were stamped with the chrismon or with a figure of Christ, and it is thought that such pieces of money were converted to pious use as medals. The practice was widespread and was familiar at Rome and Constantinople, as well as in Africa.
There are no certain examples of religious medals from the early Middle Ages, but in the 12th century a custom grew of making medals, "pilgrim signs," cast in lead to commemorate well-known shrines. This custom was known in Rome; in 1200 Innocent III granted the canons of St. Peter's a monopoly of casting pilgrim signs for distribution to those visiting the basilica. Also, there are references to pilgrim signs for Canterbury, England, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, the Holy Land, and Assisi, Italy.
A type of medal called a jetton appeared in the 13th century and was used until modern times. These medals bore either initials or a device by which the owner could be identified. They were used as a sort of ticket or calling card, and sometimes as money. Besides the mark of identification, the jetton usually bore a pious motto, such as: "Love God and Praise Him"; "O Lord, Our God"; or "Hail Mary, Mother of God." The commonest motto used on the jetton was IHS, a way of writing the name Jesus. This jetton seems to have been connected with the devotion to the holy name.
Medals commemorating religious events, e.g., the preaching of Savonarola and papal jubilees, began to be popular in the 15th century. Religious medals as they are known today began to appear in the 16th century, and the blessing of medals came into use at this time. Pius V is credited with inaugurating the custom. In 1566 he blessed and indulgenced a medal bearing the image of Jesus and Mary. The usage spread rapidly. By the 17th century, every city in Europe had its own medals featuring Christ or His Mother, or a favorite saint or devotion. Surveys show types of medals beyond number. The events of Our Lord's life, the apparitions of Our Lady, the saints and blessed were commemorated in medals of some kind.
Religious medals used by Catholics are not to be regarded as magic charms and amulets. Such superstition has been severely condemned by the Church (h. denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 477, 581, 601, 1823). Catholic teaching attributes no intrinsic power to medals, blessed or not. The medal is a symbol that recalls to the believer his faith and his religious duties. Such a reminder moves him to acts of reverence to God or to Christ, immediately or mediately through the sacred person or event represented by the medal. It is not from the medal that the believer expects help or on which he puts reliance. The medal occasions acts of faith and hope in God whom it represents either directly or indirectly.
Bibliography: h. thurston, The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. c. g. herbermann et al., v. 10 (New York 1907–14) 111–115. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie (Paris 1907–53) 1.2:1822–33. s. de angelis, De indulgentiis (Vatican City 1950) 224, 226, 236, 266.
[p. f. mulhern]