|By Robert Kyle
“Saints preserve us!” This old Irish expression comes from the tradition of asking saints for help. It$rsquo;s called intercessory prayer. To get the attention of the saints, many of the faithful wore patron saint medals.
They are small, light, portable, and often worn as bracelets and necklaces. Some are kept in wallets and pockets. Interest in these objects has been steady for about 200 years when skilled medalists in France and Italy produced millions. Today both collectors and users have a wide choice between those which are antiques, early 20th century, and recent manufacture.
The Catholic Church estimates there are at least 10,000 saints, many nominated prior to 1000 A.D. before the pope canonized candidates and made them official. “The precise number of Catholic saints will always be debatable,” explains www.uscatholic.org. “Early Christian communities venerated hundreds of saints, but historical research by 17th and 18th century scholars determined that very few of these saints$rsquo; stories were backed by solid historical evidence.”
Pandemics in the 19th century drew people closer to saints and their medals. When cholera spread throughout Europe beginning in 1829 the population felt helpless until a special medal appeared in France in 1832. Designed by a young nun in Paris who had three encounters with the Virgin Mary, the medal was cited as offering protection from the disease as well as cures. Called the Miraculous Medal, it is still made and sold today. Original 19th century examples are occasionally found.
The bubonic plague in Europe came in three waves: mid-14th century, early 17th century and late 19th century. Saint Sebastian (256 A.D. – 288 A.D.) was chosen as the martyr who offered protection against this disease. He is also the patron saint of athletes.
Saints are recognized in three religions: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox. Episcopals, Lutherans and Anglicans have saints but don$rsquo;t pray to them
The first saint with papal approval was Ulrich, or Udalric, from Germany, who was canonized in 993 A.D. The first American female saint was Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, 1775-1821. She achieved sainthood in 1975. The only Native American saint is Keteri Tekakwitha (1656-1680) of the Mohawk tribe, canonized in 2012. She helped small pox victims.
The earliest medals originated in the 16th century when Pope Pius V began blessing devotional medals at the Vatican in 1566. This sparked an interest in small medals depicting holy figures which were eventually made throughout Europe. France was a hotbed for medal makers. More than 100 were active in the 19th century.
If a medal found today is marked “France” or “Italy” it is later than 1930 when country-of-origin was required. Nineteenth century medals are often inscribed in French, Italian, Latin, Polish and even Chinese.
Earlier medals were made of silver and bronze. Later, silver plate was used, and even aluminum. Earlier medals are very thin with signs of wear. Most medals are small, about half the size of a penny.
How a saint appears on a medal is based on early artwork. And that art is a rendition derived from stories, myths and traditional beliefs. The Renaissance period (15th and 16th centuries) found saints becoming popular subjects for painters, who used their own judgment regarding a saint$rsquo;s appearance. Later these images were made into affordable lithographs and small holy cards which themselves are collectible.
Wearing saint medals was not unlike an amulet and talisman worn for centuries by civilizations around the globe for protection and good fortune. Clarifying, the church$rsquo;s Catechism states: “Never should we look upon the wearing of a religious medal as a $rsquo;charm,$rsquo; but always as a sacred symbol of the supernatural protection offered directly by our Lord, Blessed Mother, or saint.”
Honoring a saint is known as veneration. Today$rsquo;s modern methods of paying homage to saints might startle the medieval mind. Saint faces are now found on socks, neckties, T-shirts, hats, tattoos, underwear, and playing cards. Joan of Arc has her own brand of kidney beans. Statues of Joseph, husband of Mary, are hawked by hardware stores for his power to sell houses.
With more than 1,800 modern saints available, choosing one is often guided by their specialty or name. Catholic confirmation requires selecting a saint. Also, some people like saints who share their same name. Saints named John number 51. There are 20 named Mary.
Pandemic saints exist as well. It$rsquo;s because they suffered from one and helped others. Edmund the Martyr, the first saint of England, is also called the pandemic saint. Quirinus of Neuss is a plague and smallpox saint. In the 14th century the Catholic Church designated a group of saints who dealt with diseases and called them The Fourteen Holy Helpers following the Black Death plague. If another epidemic came along, these specialists were ready to help. Their membership includes Saints George, Barbara, Vitus, Christopher, Giles and Denis.
Saint Roch (also spelled Rocco), who is invoked against the plague, also helps dogs and bachelors. Some of his 19th century medals are inscribed in French: “dieu de bonte preservez nous du cholera.” (God of Goodness Save Us From Cholera.”) This refers to cholera outbreaks in France in 1832 and 1849.
The only saint you can buy in a box at your local hardware store is Joseph. Usually described with something like “The Saint Joseph Home Seller Kit,” it involves burying a small statute of Joseph near the For Sale yard sign. He should be 12 inches deep, upside down, and facing the house. A prayer is said to him each day. When the house sells, dig him up. Several companies offer these kits on Amazon. Joseph was selected for this job because he was described in the Bible as a tekton, the ancient Greek term for artisan, carpenter and builder.
Addressing the question of having medals blessed, John Monroe of Rosa Mystica Medals in Georgia, said: “That is up to the individual. If a blessing gives someone comfort or peace then yes, get it blessed. For some people, just wearing a metal gives them comfort. That is the case with me.”
Regarding his sales during the pandemic, he said, “I have seen an uptick in Saint Roch, patron saint of epidemics, Saint Agatha, patron saint of nurses, and Saint Luke, patron saint of doctors. Our usual popular medals—Mary Magdalene, Joseph, the Virgin Mary Miraculous Medal, and Saint Joan—continue to sell well. People take comfort in their saint medals.”
Some medical professionals collect saints who dealt with diseases. Dr. Elin Gursky, an infectious disease epidemiologist in Maryland, says these medals reflect difficult historical periods.
“Imagine living in a time when diseases and illnesses were ascribed to bad humors and demons. With only salves, poultices and potions available to help avert death, and remedies from recipes passed down across families and villages, faith played a vital role in the lives of populations decimated by plagues and epidemics,” she said.
“Medals, usually blessed and specific to rampant diseases like rabies, tuberculosis and pox, were tangible representations of that truth. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the coronavirus pandemic finds humanity once again facing a disease without benefit of medicines, vaccines and diagnostics.”
Her collection “combines my occupational interests with the love for these historic antique relics beautifully engraved with imagery and prayer.”