Religious Medals & Their Meaning

Written by john roesch
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Medals are small, coinlike pieces of metal worn by many Catholics as a sign of faith. The most popular medals depict patron saints with whom the wearer feels an affinity. However, medals take a wide range of forms and functions. Medals may depict religious concepts as well as people.


Today, medals are worn by Catholics around the world. Medals are usually round or oval-shaped and the size of a large coin. They are made from struck or moulded medal and depict religious scenes or portraits of people, often saints or religious figures. While not regarded by all as holy objects, they are worn as a reminder of one's faith and to impart spiritual lessons. Many Catholics treat them as talismans of protection, guarding the wearer from harm. Medals depicting Saint Christopher, for example, are popularly worn to protect travellers.


Though religious icons such as medallions have been in use since the Middle Ages, Catholic devotional medals in their modern form were first used during the Renaissance. The first of these were not explicitly religious, and it was only in the 16th century that the Catholic church began to strongly encourage the use of devotional medals depicting religious figures as a means of reinforcing one's faith. During this period, papal blessing of medals became commonplace, establishing medals as holy objects.


Patron saint devotional medals, also known as "saint medallions," bear the image of a Catholic saint. Saints are assigned qualities or causes of which they are the "patron saint." People pray to the saints about these qualities. These usually relate to acts and causes taken up by the saints when they were alive. Patron saint medals are often selected by people who have some relation to the quality that the saint is associated with. For example, a person working with animals may wear a medal depicting St. Francis of Assisi, who is the patron saint of animals. Although less common, medals may depict popes, or spiritual figures such as Jesus Christ.


Medals may also depict events, such as scenes from the bible or miracles. For example, rather than depicting a saint's portrait, the medal may depict a miracle or act of faith that the saint is supposed to have performed. Additionally, medals depicting events may depict scenes from the history of the church that demonstrate an important value. Although not as popular today, medals depicting miracles are still produced and worn by Catholics.

Private Medals

Historically, medals would also be struck to commemorate a person's life. Sometimes these would be created at a person's birth, baptism or marriage and given to them as a symbol of their commitment to the church. They could also be created as a memorial to a deceased person and distributed to their family and friends as a reminder that they are in heaven. Medals of this type have waned in popularity and are rarely seen today.

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