Medal distributed by Cecilia Gonzaga to political allies, a common practice in Renaissance Europe. Designed by Pisanello in 1447.
Medallion received by Dr. Chandra Sarma for proficiency in Anatomy from Berry-White School of Medicine in 1930-31, Dibrugarh, Assam, India

A medal, or medallion, is generally a circular object that has been sculpted, molded, cast, struck, stamped, or some way rendered with an insignia, portrait, or other artistic rendering. A medal may be awarded to a person or organization as a form of recognition for athletic, military, scientific, academic, or various other achievements. Medals may also be created to commemorate particular individuals or events, or even as works of artistic expression in their own right; artists who focus their talents on the creation of medals or medallions are termed a medalist. There are also devotional medals which may be worn as a matter of religious faith. Medals are popular collectible items either as a form of exonumia or of militaria phaleristics. Medallions are occasionally referred to as "table medals" because they are too large to be worn and can only be displayed on a table top, desk or cabinet. Medals may also be produced in a rectangular shape, though these would more correctly be described as a plaque, and a smaller version as a plaquette. In colloquial use, "medallion" is sometimes improperly used to refer to a pendant of a necklace. It can also be used as a symbol to dignify greatness, especially when awarded on the collegiate level. The recently awarded BAV medallion is typically given to the best up and coming director and screen writer.



First attested in English in 1578, the word medal is derived from the Middle French médaille, itself from Italian medaglia, and ultimately from the post-classical Latin medalia, meaning a coin worth half a denarius. The word medallion (first attested in English in 1658) has the same ultimate derivation, but this time through the Italian medaglione, meaning "large medal". There are two theories as for the etymology of the word medalia: the first is that the Latin medalia itself is derived from the adjective medialis meaning "medial" or "middle";[1] the second is that medaglia, comes from the Vulgar Latin metallea (moneta) meaning "metal (coin)" and that from Latin metallum,[2] which is the latinisation of the Greek μέταλλον (metallon), "a mine".[3][4][5][6]


Various prize medals with the obverse designs, suspension rings and ribbons typical of medals intended to be draped over the head and hung from the neck

The main or front surface is termed the obverse, and may contain a portrait, pictorial scene or other image along with an inscription. The reverse, or back surface of the medal, is not always used and may be left blank or may contain a secondary design. It is not uncommon to find only an artistic rendering on the obverse, while all details and other information for the medal are inscribed on the reverse. The rim is found only occasionally employed to display an inscription such as a motto, privy mark, engraver symbol, assayer’s marking or a series number.

Medals that are intended to be hung from a ribbon also include a small suspension piece at the crest with which to loop a suspension ring through. It is through the ring that a ribbon is run or folded so the medal may hang pendent. Medals pinned to the breast use only a small cut of ribbon that is attached to a top bar where the brooch pin is affixed. Top bars may be hidden under the ribbon so they are not visible, be a plain device from which the ribbon attaches or even decorative to complement the design on the medal; some top bars are elaborate and contain a whole design unto themselves.

Bronze has been the most common material employed for medals, due to its fair price range, durability, ease with which to work when casting and the ample availability, but a wide range of other media have also been used. Rarer metals have been employed, such as silver, platinum and gold, when wishing to add value beyond the mere artistic depiction, as well as base metals and alloys such as copper, brass, iron, aluminum, lead, zinc, nickel and pewter. Medals that are made with inexpensive material might be gilded, silver plated, chased or finished in a variety of other ways to improve their appearance. Medals have also been made of glass, porcelain, coal, wood, paper, terra cotta, enamel, lacquerware and plastics.


Bronze medal of Isabella d'Este, princess and patron of Renaissance humanists, distributed as a gift.
Silver Geuzen medal commemorating the Capture of Brielle in 1572 by the Sea Beggars; this was produced commercially

The first known instance of a medal being awarded comes from the historian Josephus who, writing long after the event, accounts that in the fourth century BCE the High Priest Jonathan led the Hebrews in aid of Alexander the Great, and that in return for this, Alexander "sent to Jonathan... honorary awards, as a golden button, which it is custom to give the king's kinsmen." The Roman emperors used both military awards of medals, and political gifts of medallions that were like very large coins, usually in gold or silver, and die-struck like coins.[7] Both these and actual gold coins were often set as pieces of jewellery, worn by both sexes.

The bracteate is a type of thin gold medal, usually plain on the reverse, found in Northern Europe from the so called "Dark Ages" or Migration Period. They often have suspension loops and were clearly intended to be worn on a chain as jewellery. They imitate, at a distance, Roman imperial coins and medallions, but have the heads of gods, animals, or other designs.[8] The Liudhard medalet, produced around 600AD in Anglo-Saxon England, is an isolated example, known from a single copy, of a Christian medal, featuring an inscription naming Liudhard (or "Saint Letard"), the first priest among the Anglo-Saxons, and probably presented to converts. The surviving example is mounted for wearing as jewellery.

In Europe, from the late Middle Ages on became common for sovereigns, nobles and later intellectuals to commission medals to be given simply as gifts to their political allies to either maintain or gain support of an influential person. The medals made be made in a range of metals, such as gold, silver-gilt, silver, bronze and lead, depending on the status of the recipient. They were typically up to about three inches across, and usually featured the head of the donor on the obverse, surrounded by an inscription with their name and title, and their emblem on the reverse, with a learned motto inscribed round the edges. Such medals were not usually intended to be worn, although they might be set as pendants on a chain. From the 16th century medals were made, both by rulers for presentation and private enterprise for sale, to commemorate specific events, including military battles and victories, and from this grew the practice of awarding military medals specifically to combatants, though initially only a few of the officers.

Medal of the Emperor John VIII Palaiologos during his visit to Florence, by Pisanello (1438). The legend reads, in Greek: "John the Palaiologos, basileus and autokrator of the Romans".

The medieval revival seems to have begun around 1400 with the extravagant French prince Jean, Duc de Berry, who commissioned a number of large classicising medals that were probably produced in very small numbers, or a unique cast. Only casts in bronze from the originals in precious metal survive; at least some medals were also set with jewels, and these may well have been worn on a chain.[9] At the same period the first known medal post-classical medal commemorating a victory was struck for Francesco Carrara (Novello) on the occasion of the capture of Padua in 1390. The Italian artist Pisanello, generally agreed to be the finest medallist of the Renaissance, began in 1438 with a medal celebrating the unprecedented visit of the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos to Italy. This was presumably a commercial venture, but his later medals were mostly commissioned for distribution as gifts by rulers or nobles; like almost all early Renaissance medals it was cast rather than die-struck. With each successive cast the medal became slightly smaller, and the numbers that could be produced was probably not large. A lead "proof" was probably often used. The association between medals and the classical revival began to take a rather different form, and the exchange of medals became associated with Renaissance Humanism; princes would send humanist writers and scholars medals in recognition of their work, and the humanists began to make their own medals, normally in bronze, to send to their patrons and peers.[10] The fashion remained restricted to Italy until near the end of the 15th century, when it spread to other countries. By the 16th century medals were increasingly produced by rulers or cities for propaganda purposes.[11] In 1550 a die-stamping machine, using steel dies, was introduced in Augsburg, Germany, and soon this process became standard; the artist now cut an intaglio die rather than modelling in relief.[12]

By the 16th century the wearing of smaller medals on a chain was a persistent fashion for both sexes, and a variety of medals were produced commercially for the purpose, commemorating persons or events, or just with non-specific suitable sentiments. German artists had been producing high-quality medals from the beginning of the century; the French and British were slower to produce fine work, but by the late 17th century most parts of Western Europe could produce fine work. Medals were also collected, which continues to the present day. Official medals, from which specialized military awards descended, were increasingly produced, but the real growth in military medals did not come until the 19th century. Devotional medals also became very popular in Catholic countries; during the Reformation there had also been a vigorous tradition of Protestant medals, more polemical than devotional, which continued with the Geuzen medals produced in the Dutch Revolt.

Military medals and decorations

The Victoria Cross is a British military decoration, though at times is referred to improperly as a medal.
Further information Military awards and decorations and Orders of merit

Military decorations, service awards and medals are often mistakenly confused with one another. Decoration is a term for awards which require specific acts of heroism or achievement (such as the British Victoria Cross or American Silver Star) whereas a service award or campaign medal is awarded for serving in a particular capacity in a particular geographical area and time frame (such as the Iraq Campaign Medal). In either case, an award or decoration may be presented as a medal.

The Roman Republic, adopted an elaborate system of military awards that included medals called phalerae to be issued to soldiers and units for a variety of achievements. The practice was revived in the Early Modern period, and medals began to be worn on the chest as part of military uniform. The United States Continental Congress awarded the Fidelity Medallion as early as 1780, to three specified men for a particular incident, as a one-off award, which was characteristic of early military decorations. But in 1782 the Badge of Military Merit was established, and mostly awarded to non-officers. The Légion d'honneur instituted by Napoleon I in 1802 had some of the characteristics of the old military orders, but was intended to be far more inclusive, and was awarded to rank and file soldiers for bravery or exceptional service. Other nations followed with decorations such as the British Army Gold Medal from 1810, though this only went to senior officers, and the Prussian Iron Cross from 1813. Medals were not awarded to all combatants in a war or battle until the 19th century; the Waterloo Medal was the first British medal given to all present, at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the associated actions. By the middle of the 19th century the number of awards used had greatly expanded in most countries to something like modern levels.

The three versions of the Medal of Honor. Each displays a medal within a unique star-shaped design.

An order tends to be the most elaborate of military decorations, typically awarded for distinguished services to a nation or to the general betterment of humanity. Orders are distinguished from other forms of decoration in that they often imply membership in an organization or association of others that have received the same award. (Two of the most well known and commonly awarded orders are the Légion d'honneur of France, military and civil, and the civil Order of the British Empire.) The practice of conferring orders originates with the mediaeval fraternities of knighthood, some of which still exist and are still awarded. While most modern orders have no roots in knighthood, they still tend to carry over the terms of their historic counterparts, and terms such as knight, commander, officer, members and so on are still commonly found as ranks. A military order may use a medal as its insignia, however, most tend to have a unique badge or a type of plaque specifically designed for an emblem.

The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government, and is an example a decoration that is modeled as a military order, even though not expressly defining itself as one. It is bestowed on a member of the United States armed forces who distinguishes himself "conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States."[13] Each of the three branches of the American armed forces has a unique picture displayed on a medal, which is in turn displayed upon a star-shaped heraldic badge. The medal of the U.S. Army depicts the head of Minerva, the U.S. Navy medal shows a scene of Minerva doing battle with Discord and the U.S. Air Force depicts the Statue of Liberty upon its medal.

Military decorations, including medals and orders, are usually presented to the recipient in a formal ceremony. Medals are normally worn on more formal occasions suspended from a ribbon of the medal's colours on the left breast, while a corresponding ribbon bar is to be worn for to common events where medals would be inappropriate or impractical to wear.

Georgeiiofgreece.jpg Szlaszewski Stefan.jpg Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge KG, GCB.JPG Peter Pace in dress uniform 2005.jpg
George II, King of the Hellenes. Colonel Stefan Szlaszewski. Field Marshal The Rt. Hon. The Lord Inge. General Peter Pace.


A family heirloom artistic medallion used at a home wedding in the U.S.A.

Generally circular, table medals are issued for artistic, commemoration or souvenir purposes, not for commerce. Tokens and Table Medals of coin-like appearance are part of the Exonumia subcategory of Numismatics, while Orders, Decorations and Medals are considered Militaria (military related). In the U.S. Military, modern medals are often referred to as challenge coins.

The Nobel Foundation, the organization awarding the prestigious Nobel Prize, presents each winner "an assignment for the amount of the prize, a diploma, and a gold medal..." This example of a medal would be displayed on a table or in a cabinet, rather than worn by the winner.

The Carnegie Hero Foundation is the issuer of a bravery medal, most commonly issued in the US and Canada but also in the UK. This large bronze table medal features Andrew Carnegie's likeness on the obverse and the name of the awardee and citation engraved on the reverse. It is usually issued for lifesaving incidents.

Also related are plaques and plaquettes. While usually metal, table medals have been issued in wood, plastic, fibre and other compositions. The US Government awards gold medals on important occasions, with bronze copies available for public sale.

Competition medals

A silver medal was awarded to the winner of each event during the 1896 Summer Olympics. Recent Olympic medals are suspended as a pendant from a ribbon, and are awarded in gold, silver and bronze.

Medals have historically been given as prizes in various types of competitive activities, especially athletics.

Traditionally, medals are made of the following metals:

  1. Gold (or another yellow metal, e.g. brass)
  2. Silver (or another grey metal, e.g. steel)
  3. Bronze
  4. Pewter

These metals designate the first three Ages of Man in Greek mythology: the Golden Age, when men lived among the gods; the Silver age, where youth lasted a hundred years; and the Bronze Age, the era of heroes. (The current age is called the Iron Age.) Note that the metals are progressively more prone to corrosion and also decreasing in rarity and thus value.

This standard was adopted at the 1904 Summer Olympics. At the 1896 event, silver was awarded to winners and bronze to runners-up, while at 1900 other prizes were given, not medals.

Medals as art

The first great artist to create medals was the Italian painter Antonio Pisano, known as Pisanello, who modelled and cast a number of portrait medals of princes and scholars in the 1440s. Many other artists followed his example, in Italy, the Low Countries, Germany and France. In the seventeenth century medals were extensively used to commemorate events and glorify rulers. In the eighteenth century prize medals became common. In the 19th century art medals became popular. In the early part of the century David d'Angers produced a great series of portrait medals of famous contemporaties and in the latter part of the century Jules-Clément Chaplain and Louis-Oscar Roty were highly regarded. The early twentieth century saw art medals flourish, particularly in France, Italy and Belgium while later in the century Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, USA, Canada and England produced much high quality work. One such artist is the portrait medalist Christian Cardell Corbet. The Sanford Saltus medal is the most prestigious award for art medals in the USA.[citation needed]

Colonial Expo 1896.jpg Medal xvolsona paris1900.jpg
1896 Colonial Exposition medal,
by Louis-Oscar Roty.
1900 Exposition Universelle medal,
by Jules-Clément Chaplain.

See also

External links


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "medal"; Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. "medal".
  2. ^ metallum, Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, on Perseus
  3. ^ μέταλλον, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  4. ^ The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary, p. 450, Signet, 2006, on Google books
  5. ^ Heinemann English Dictionary, p. 623,
  6. ^ medal, Online Etymology Dictionary
  7. ^ Osbourne, 563
  8. ^ "Bracteate [Scandinavian] (2001.583)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 ndash. (October 2006)
  9. ^ "Constantine medal, French (Paris) (1988.133)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. Accessed July 5, 2010
  10. ^ Osbourne, 563-564
  11. ^ Scher
  12. ^ Osbourne, 567
  13. ^ "Code of Federal Regulations". Department of the Army. Retrieved 27 November 2009. 


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  • medal — {{/stl 13}}{{stl 8}}rz. mnż III, D. u; lm D. i {{/stl 8}}{{stl 7}} mały, płaski krążek metalowy, okrągły lub owalny, ozdobiony napisem, wizerunkiem itp. po jednej albo obu stronach, upamiętniający ważne wydarzenia, czyny bohaterskie, odkrycia… …   Langenscheidt Polski wyjaśnień

  • Medal — Med al, v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Medaled}, or {Medalled}; p. pr. & vb. n. {Medaling} or {Medalling}.] To honor or reward with a medal. Medaled by the king. Thackeray. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • medal — [med′ l] n. [Fr médaille < It medaglia < VL * medalia, a small coin < * medialia < LL medialis, MEDIAL] 1. a small, flat piece of metal with a design or inscription stamped or inscribed on it, made to commemorate some event, or… …   English World dictionary

  • Medal — Med al, n. [F. m[ e]daille, It. medaglia, fr. L. metallum metal, through (assumed) LL. metalleus made of metal. See {Metal}, and cf. {Mail} a piece of money.] A piece of metal in the form of a coin, struck with a device, and intended to preserve… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • medal — index prize Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • medal — has derivative forms medalled, medallist in BrE, and usually medaled, medalist in AmE …   Modern English usage

  • medal — [n] decoration of honor badge, commemoration, gold, hardware*, laurel, medallion, reward, ribbon, wreath; concepts 337,476 …   New thesaurus

  • medal — ► NOUN ▪ a metal disc with an inscription or design, awarded for achievement or to commemorate an event. ORIGIN Latin medalia half a denarius …   English terms dictionary

  • medal — /med l/, n., v., medaled, medaling or (esp. Brit.) medalled, medalling. n. 1. a flat piece of metal, often a disk but sometimes a cross, star, or other form, usually bearing an inscription or design, issued to commemorate a person, action, or… …   Universalium

  • medal — n. 1) to award, give a medal 2) to earn a medal 3) to strike ( make ) a medal 4) a bronze; gold; silver medal (as a prize) 5) a medal for (to earn a medal for bravery) * * * [medl] give a medal gold silver medal (as a prize) …   Combinatory dictionary

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