Early Christian history can be a minefield of hyperbole and mysticism, of which the life of Pope St. Stephen I (reigned 254 – 257) is a very good example. Having your head cut off would be, in most cases, a fairly conclusive act. It has, however, never been clear whether or not Stephen was violently uncrowned, or whether it is an apocryphal martyr’s story added to make him seem more holy, and to align his death with renewed persecution of Christians under the Emperor Valerian from 257.
The story goes that the Valerian instructed all Christian clergy to perform sacrifices to the traditional Roman gods, and to stop having their meetings in the Roman catacombs. Predictably, Stephen refused and was beheaded by Imperial soldiers while performing mass. The blood-stained chair in which he was supposed to have sat was preserved until the 18th century.
When he wasn’t being decapitated, Stephen occupied himself during his short papacy with the question of whether or people from other Christian sects needed to be rebaptised should they adopt Roman Catholicism. In 1839, he suffered the ignominy of being relegated to a secondary role on 2nd August, his feast day, in favour of St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori. In 1969 he was dropped from the General Roman Calendar altogether, though still continues to be acknowledged in some localities. He is the patron saint of Hvar in Croatia.
Pope Stephen appears here on a medal dating from the 16th century. It is not a medal in the usual modern sense, which denotes an award, usually military or sporting, but something a little different. Medals in this more traditional sense are flat, round, small, and made from metal. They had many purposes, including reward, but also devotion, decoration and commemoration. Then, as now, they were highly collectible.