Jewelry with a history…there was some serious meaning behind those words for me this week. I recently bought several strands of beautifully polished gemstone beads and chain I thought would look perfect with some old, vintage saint medals from Italy and France that I had collected.
After making several bracelets and necklaces with these medals that I considered simply hip and trendy, I started to look a little closer at them and it occurred to me that there just might be a bit of history there worth researching.
Religious devotional medals began to appear in the 1500s. St. Pope Pius V began the practice of blessing devotional medals in 1566, the first year of his papacy. After blessing a medal bearing the image of Jesus and Mary, the practice of blessing devotional medals quickly spread throughout the Catholic world. By the 1600s, many cities in Europe had their own special medals with images of Jesus and Mary or a patron saint.
The Catholic Church is very clear in teaching that religious medals do not have any extraordinary powers, whether blessed or not. To think that they do is harshly condemned by the Church. Instead, devotional medals are sacramentals which are symbols created by the Church to remind believers of putting their faith into action, to pray, or perform acts of reverence to God.
After researching the saint pictured on each medal, I chose a few of the major achievements and high points of their lives to write about so you would be able to share in this incredible history with me, dating back hundreds of years!
St. Benedict founded 12 monasteries in Subiaco, Italy as well as the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino in the mountains of southern Italy.
His greatest achievement was writing the Rule of Saint Benedict containing 73 chapters of guidelines for his monks about how to live a Christ-centered life on earth and run a monastery efficiently. Benedict is often referred to as the founder of western monasticism.
The year of 1880 marked the celebration of St. Benedict’s 1400th birthday. To commemorate, the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino made the “Jubilee Medal” to honor St. Benedict. This medal is one of the oldest and most honored medals used by Catholics.
On the front side, St. Benedict is holding a cross representing the saving power of Christ and evangelization by the Benedictines over the centuries. In his other hand is a book containing the Holy Rule of his Order. St. Benedict is the patron saint of Europe and students.
Reverse Side of Medal
The reverse side of the medal has a cross with several initials. This is what they signify…
Vertical bar – CSSML Crux Sacra Sit Mihi Lux (May the Holy Cross be my light)
Horizontal bar – NDSMD Non Draco Sit Mihi Dux (Let not the dragon be my overlord)
Interior angles of the cross – CSPB Crux Sancti Patris Benedicti (The Cross of the Holy Father Benedict) Top of the cross – PAX (Peace)
Around the sides – VRSNSMV Vade Retro Satana, Nonquam Suade Mihi Vana (Be gone Satan, do not suggest to me thy vanities) and SMQLIVB which signifies Sunt Mala Quae Libas, Ipse Venena Bibas (Evil are the things thou profferest, drink thou thy own poison)
St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi was born in 1181 or 1182. He came from a wealthy family, living the typical high life of rich young men of his age. After becoming ill and lying helpless, a voice seemed to tell him to “Serve the Master rather than the man.”
He started taking long walks in the country, spending many hours by himself, and began to feel contempt for a life wasted on temporary things. This was a time of spiritual crisis as he searched for something worthy of his complete devotion.
After finding deep compassion for the less fortunate, he started visiting hospitals and giving all he had to the poor.
This medal also reflects his great love and tenderness for animals for which he became known as the patron saint of animals. The birds would perch attentively around him when he told them to sing their Creator’s praises. There were other accounts of a rabbit and tamed wolf that would not leave him. These, and many others inspired several artists and storytellers.
Every year, on October 4 (his Feast Day), St. Francis’ love of animals is celebrated by holding Blessings of Pets where animals are brought to the Church to receive blessings in his name. He has been named the patron saint of animals and ecology.
When I adopted my Pomeranian, Emma, I took her to be given a special blessing at a Blessings of Pets ceremony:
St. Christopher was a man of extraordinary size and strength and is described as having a stature of 7 ½ to 12 feet tall. On his search for the greatest king, he met a hermit who told him that because of his great size, he could serve God by carrying people across a dangerous river.
One day, he carried a child across the river and noticed that he was getting heavier. The child told him that he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders as well as the One who created the world. He then announced himself to St. Christopher as Christ, his King.
That is how St. Christopher became the patron saint of travelers. Although the date of St. Christopher’s birth is unknown, he died a martyr in the 3rd century after converting thousands to Christianity.
St. Peregrine was born wealthy in 1260 in Forli, Italy and started out living a very self-indulgent life. One day, he had a dispute with St. Philip Benizi and struck him on the face. Instead of responding with anger, St. Philip turned the other cheek and forgave Peregrine. This encounter completely changed him.
As penance, St. Peregrine lived and worked as much as possible in silence and solitude for 30 years. He returned to Forli where he spent the rest of his life dedicating himself to the sick and destitute.
He also imposed on himself the penance of standing whenever it was not necessary to sit. This led to varicose veins which later deteriorated into an open sore on his leg and was eventually diagnosed as cancer. A local surgeon found it necessary to amputate the leg. Peregrine spent the night before the surgery in prayer and when he awoke, the wound was healed and his leg was saved. He then lived another 20 years. St. Peregrine has been named the patron saint of those suffering from cancer and other illnesses.
St. Anthony was a Portuguese Catholic priest and friar of the Franciscan Order. He was known for his powerful preaching and expert knowledge of the scriptures and was commissioned to produce his collection of sermons called Sermons for Feast Days. Venerable Pope Pius XII proclaimed St. Anthony a Doctor of the Church in 1946 and gave him the title of Doctor Evangelicus which means Evangelical Doctor.
St. Anthony is credited with many miracles involving lost people and lost things. One example involved St. Anthony’s special book of psalms that contained his notes for teaching. After one of his students made the decision to leave the Order, he stole the book on his way out.
Prior to the invention of the printing press, any book was considered quite valuable. After St. Anthony noticed it was missing, he prayed it would be found or returned. The student was moved and brought the book back to him. St. Anthony is recognized all over the world as the patron saint for lost articles.
St. Jude was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus and is often referred to as Jude Thaddeus. St. Jude was described in Matthew 13:55 as being one of the “brethren” of Jesus. The Hebrew word for brethren simply indicates a blood relationship, so they were most likely cousins.
The St. Jude medal shows him holding a club in one hand and an image of Jesus Christ in the other. The club symbolizes the way in which he was killed, as a martyr in 65 A.D. The image of Jesus comes from the story of King Abgar of Edessa who sent a letter to Jesus along with an artist, asking him to cure him of an illness.
Jesus pressed his face into a cloth to take to King Abgar. Upon seeing the image of Jesus, the king placed the cloth with great honor in one of his palaces. After Christ’s death, St. Jude was sent to King Abgar and he was cured. The king was astounded and converted to Christianity along with most of the people under his rule.
St. Jude encouraged Christian converts to persevere in the face of difficult circumstances and to keep their faith which led to him becoming the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes.
St. Faustina, a Polish nun, was born in Poland in 1905 as Maria Faustyna Kowalska. In 1930, St. Faustina arrived at a convent in Plock, a city in central Poland. That year, she had the first signs of her fatal illness, later thought to be tuberculosis.
In 1931, St. Faustina wrote in her diary that Jesus appeared to her as the King of Divine Mercy wearing a white garment with red and pale rays emanating from his heart. She continued writing that Jesus told her to paint an image according to the image she witnessed along with the inscription: Jesus, I trust in You. In 1934, she was introduced to an artist who painted the Image of Divine Mercy for her.
Before her death, St. Faustina predicted, “There will be a war, a terrible, terrible war.” She asked the nuns to pray for Poland. In 1939, a year after her death, the archbishop was aware that her predictions about the war had taken place. He then allowed public access to the image which became a source of strength and inspiration for many people in Poland. By 1941, millions of copies of Divine Mercy prayer cards were printed and distributed worldwide.
Reverse Side of Medal – Divine Mercy
St. Therese (French spelling for Theresa) was born in 1873 in Alencon, a commune in Normandy, France. Her mother died when she was only 4 years old. At age 15, St. Therese became a nun and joined two of her elder sisters in the Carmelite community of Lisieux.
St. Therese lived each day with unshakable confidence in God’s love. She wrote: What matters in life is not great deeds, but great love. St. Therese strived to do the ordinary with extraordinary love.
She loved flowers and saw herself as the “little flower of Jesus” who gave glory to God by just being beautiful among all the other flowers in God’s garden. Because of this analogy, she was given the title of Little Flower.
Pope Pius X called her “the greatest saint of modern times.” She has been a highly influential model of purity because of the simplicity and practicality of her approach to the spiritual life. She died very young of tuberculosis at age 24. St. Therese lived a hidden life but became recognized by millions of people after her death through her spiritual autobiography, Story of a Soul.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a Catholic title of the Virgin Mary given by Pope Pius IX. It is associated with a well-known Byzantine icon (image of a divine form which is recognized as sacred) of the same name dating from the 15th century.
This icon has been in Rome since 1499 and is permanently enshrined in the church of Sant’Alfonso di Liguori. The image has become quite popular among Roman Catholics and has been copied and reproduced many times over. Modern reproductions are often displayed in homes, businesses, and public transportation.
Reverse Side of Medal – St. Gerard Majella
St. Gerard Majella has become known as the patron of expectant mothers. A few months before his death, St. Gerard made a visit to the Pirofalo family and dropped his handkerchief. One of the Pirofalo daughters spotted it just after he left the house so she ran after him to return it. He told her to keep it and said she might need it someday.
Many years later, when she was close to losing her life while giving birth, she remembered the words of St. Gerard. She asked for the handkerchief to be brought to her. Almost immediately her pain was gone and she gave birth to a healthy child.
Because of the miracles that God worked through St. Gerard’s prayers with mothers, he became their patron in Italy. He is also known as il santo dei felice parti which means the saint of happy childbirth.
The Miraculous Medal, also known as the Medal of the Immaculate Conception, was designed by St. Catherine Labouré after her reported vision of the Virgin Mary.
On July 18, 1830, St. Catherine woke up after hearing a child’s voice calling her to the chapel where she heard the Virgin Mary say to her, “God wishes to charge you with a mission. You will be contradicted, but do not fear; you will have the grace to do what is necessary.”
On November 27 of the same year, Catherine reported that Mary returned and displayed herself inside an oval frame, standing upon a globe, wearing many rings of different colors, most of which shone rays of light over the globe. (Front of medal)
As Catherine watched, the frame seemed to rotate, showing a circle of twelve stars, a large letter M surmounted by a cross, the Sacred Heart of Jesus crowned with thorns, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary pierced with a sword.
Reverse Side of Medal
Our Lady of Fátima
Our Lady of Fátima is based on a vision given to three shepherd children in 1917 in Fátima, Portugal on the 13th day of six consecutive months beginning on May 13. The children claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary six times between May and October that year.
According to one child’s account, the Lady of Fátima also confided three secrets to the children, now known as the Three Secrets of Fátima.
The first secret was a vision of hell. The second secret included Mary’s instructions on how to save souls from hell and convert the world to the Christian faith. The third secret, which was withheld by the Vatican until June 6, 2000, was a vision of the death of the Pope and other religious figures.
The Infant of Prague
The Infant of Prague, also known as the Infant Jesus, is a small, 19-inch wooden sculpture coated in wax. One legend about its origin states that a monk in a deserted monastery in Spain, somewhere between Cordoba and Sevilla, had a vision of a little boy telling him to pray. After spending several hours praying, he made a figure of the Holy Child. It has been determined that it was carved around the year 1340.
In 1631, the army of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden took possession of Bohemia’s capital city. The Carmelite monastery was plundered and the Infant of Prague statue was thrown into a pile of rubbish behind the altar. It lay there, forgotten for 7 years until it was found again in 1637 by Father Cyrillus and placed in the church’s oratory. The statue has remained in Prague and has drawn many followers worldwide to honor the Holy Child.
Reverse Side of Medal – Sacred Heart of Jesus
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was born in 1647 in L’Hautecour, France. She was a Roman Catholic nun who promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus which is a devotion of love for Jesus who loves us, by returning His love with our love. The Heart of Jesus is the symbol of His love for us.
From early childhood, St. Margaret was described as showing intense love for the Blessed Sacrament (the Eucharist), preferring silence and prayer over childhood play.
At age 11, rheumatic fever and the resulting paralysis confined her to bed for 4 years. When she was 15, she made a vow to the Virgin Mary to consecrate herself to a religious life and was instantly restored to perfect health. In recognition of this favor, she added the name Mary to her baptismal name of Margaret.
In 1673, Margaret Mary reported, “Jesus permitted her to rest her head upon His heart and then disclosed to her the wonders of His love, telling her that He desired to make them known to all mankind and to diffuse the treasures of His goodness through her that He had chosen for this work.”
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel can be traced back to the hermits who lived at Mt. Carmel during the time of the Old Testament. They prayed in expectation of the advent of a Virgin Mother who would bring salvation to mankind, much like the holy prophet Elias who ascended Mt. Carmel to pray to God for the salvation of Israel who was suffering a terrible drought at that time.
Elias continued to pray, sending his servant several times to the mountaintop to see any sign of coming rain. After the seventh time, the servant exclaimed, “There is a cloud, as small as a man’s hand, rising out of the sea!” Now it happened in the meantime that the sky became black with clouds and wind, and there was a heavy rain. (I Kings 18:44-45)
The hermits took after Elias’ example and made their spiritual mission to pray likewise for the advent of the much awaited Virgin who would become the Mother of the Messiah.
Reverse Side of Medal – Sacred Heart of Jesus
These medals were definitely worth the time spent researching the history of each saint. The gemstone jewelry I made with them now has so much more meaning knowing that each one has such a special story.
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com.
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