A medal is usually a coin-like sculpted object of metal or other material that has been engraved 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 some other kind of achievement. Medals may also be created to commemorate individuals or events or even as works of artistic expression in their own right. There are also devotional medals, which may be worn as a matter of religious faith. Medals are popular collectable items either as a form of exonumia or “paranumismatica”, or of militaria phaleristics.
The most common form of medal is round and made of bronze, but they may be produced in any shape desired and formed of any material that is suitable for sculpting, molding, casting, striking or stamping. A medallion is a large medal which may be commemorative or produced as a work of art or souvenir, and occasionally referred to as a “table medal”; in colloquial use, the term medallion is sometimes used to refer to ornamental jewelry worn as a pendant as part of a necklace. Art medals can also be produced in a parallelogram shape as a plaquette or larger plaque (the latter term also having non-medallic applications).
A medal has three basic parts: the obverse (the “front” surface of the medal, which will contain the portrait if one is present), the reverse (the “back” surface of the medal, which may be blank or engraved with a design), and the rim (the outer edge of the medal.) The rim of an art medal is usually blank, but may be inscribed with a motto, privy mark, engraver symbols, an assayer’s purity markings for precious metals, or the series number of a medal intended to be produced as a pure objet d’art in a limited-quantity production run.
Medals intended to be worn, such as military and some prize medals, have additional parts. A suspension is added to the top of the medal to hold it to a suspension ring, through which a ribbon is run and folded during the mounting process. The other end of the ribbon is usually run through a top bar, and a brooch pin is affixed to the back of the top bar for attaching the medal to the wearer’s garment. The front of the top bar often has an inscription, name, symbol or other design. Some worn medals may lack certain of these features, while others may have additional devices or attachments.
Although bronze has been the most common material employed for medals, a wide range of metallic and non-metallic media have also been used. These include precious medals like silver and gold, as well as base metals and alloys such as copper, brass, iron, aluminum, lead, zinc, nickel, white metal, pewter, and German silver. These medals might be gilded, silvered, chased, or finished in a variety of other ways. More exotic materials that have been used to fashion art medals include glass, porcelain, coal, wood, paper, terra cotta, enamel, lacquerware, and bois-durci (an early form of plastic).
From the late Middle Ages on, it was common for rulers and other wealthy persons to commission personal medals, often as large as three inches across, usually with their portrait on the obverse (front) and an emblem on the reverse. These were presented to friends and followers, or given to other rulers. They were not intended to be worn, although some were set as pendants on chains around the neck. They would often be produced in different metals, from gold to lead, depending on the status of the recipient. Sometimes medals to commemorate specific events, including military victories, were commissioned, and from this grew the military medal which later became an object to be worn, normally only given to military participants.
An order is perhaps the most elaborate form of medals, typically awarded for distinguished services to a nation or to humanity. An order differs from other forms of medal in that it often implies a membership of an organization. This is because orders were originally fraternities of knighthood (see Order (decoration)); even today most orders have several classes, known as knights, commanders, officers, members etc. These "medals" (or insignia) of the orders are usually very elaborate, and can be worn in different ways depending on class.
A decoration is a less elaborate form of medal, typically shaped like a cross or a star. It is usually awarded for one-off actions of some type, and is usually worn with a ribbon on the left chest. The Victoria Cross is the highest British decoration for bravery in war. This decoration is worn on the left side suspended by a ribbon.
A medal is usually the most junior of all the awards, usually shaped like a circle or otherwise like a coin. It is usually awarded for participation in a particular organization, but it may also be for one-off actions of some kind. In the latter case, the boundary between a medal and decoration is blurred. A medal is usually worn with a ribbon on the left chest.
The Medal of Honor of the United States armed forces is a bravery award worn around the neck, and may therefore be more rightly classified as a decoration. The Awards and decorations of the United States military list this country's medals.
Medals, as well as orders and decorations, are usually presented in a formal ceremony. These awards are normally worn on formal occasions only; on everyday occasions, only the ribbons of such awards are worn.
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.
Medals have historically been given as prizes in various types of competitive activities, especially athletics.
Traditionally, medals are made of the following metals:
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.
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.
Many medals, ribbons and awards displayed on the uniform of a single soldier are sometimes referred to as "fruit salad".