These two small medallions depict St. Carlo Borromeo (AD 1538-1584), a cardinal of the Catholic Church and archbishop of Milan. Because St. Carlos was infamous as one of Italy’s most significant counter-Reformation figures, it is especially curious that these medallions were found at the protestant James Fort.
The circular medallion (04704-JR) bears the Saint’s left-facing upper torso praying to a crucifix on a stand with the legend “CAROLUS B.” The opposite side depicts five figures. The central figure holds a pilgrim’s staff and appears to be blessing one of the individuals to his left. The Virgin Mary holding the Christ child appears to his right.
The oval medallion (07749-JR) bears the Saint’s bust facing a crucifix on a pedestal. The legend to the top left reads “S CARLO BO” for the Saint, and “ROMA” because it was made in Rome. The opposite side depicts the Virgin Mary and Christ child kneeling in front of a church and above a winged angel’s head. Two hanging censors flank the Mother and Child’s heads.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, Borromeo welcomed English Catholics to Italy. Many significant English Catholics visited him. He was known to venerate and carry on his person an image of John Fisher, an English cardinal and bishop who supported Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife. Fisher was executed for upholding the Catholic Church’s doctrine of papal supremacy during the reign of Henry VIII. Although it is unusual to find items typically associated with Catholics at James Fort, the medals displaying St. Carlo may be the most explicit anti-Protestant items brought from Europe to Virginia in the early 17th-century. St. Carlo Borromeo was canonized on November 1, 1610, while James Fort recovered from the ‘starving time’ and prepared to survive another challenging winter. Perhaps a traveler to Virginia brought these medallions in the hope that a God of any religion would offer some protection from a difficult life in Virginia.