The Bloody Legend of St. Valentine

A skull resides in a glass reliquary in a small basilica in Rome, surrounded by flowers. Lettering painted across the forehead identify the owner as none other than of the patron saint of lovers, St. Valentine. Knowing just exactly whose skull it is, though, is complicated. First off, there was more than one Catholic saint known as Saint Valentine. Then there’s the approximately 1500 years between those martyr’s deaths and the enthusiastic distribution and labeling of bodies in the Victorian era. Finally, and most troubling, there is the fact that no less than ten places claim to house the relics, all around the world.

Little is really known of the real man (or men) behind the myth. What is known (more or less) is that at least two men by the name of Valentine (Valentinus) were known in Italy and died in the late 3rd century, and a third Valentine was located in North Africa around the same time. The two Italians were buried along Via Flaminia. As a saint, Valentine first gained real notoriety in 496 when Pope Gelasius I made February 14, originally part of the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a feast day dedicated to St. Valentine. The stories of the different men seem to have merged into one over time, with most of the mythology about Valentine being a patron of lovers, helping early Christian couples to marry in secret, only dating to the 14th century and the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer.

The church itself is very old, standing on the site of an ancient Roman temple dating to the second century BC. Most of what you see today dates to the 8th and 12th centuries, including the crypt located beneath the altar. The skull can be found in the side altar on the left side of the church. While you are at the Basilica of Santa Maria, stop by the portico to visit with the famous Bocca della Verità (mouth of truth).

Valentine’s Day may be beloved by romance-flushed individuals keen to express their passion, and by retailers for the massive windfalls of cash it generates ($18.2 billion in the US this year) in cards, toy bears, and items adorned with hearts, but for others—the single among us, for example—it’s a painful reminder of the primacy society gives to couples, and an exercise in hollow consumption. If you’re in the latter group, it might be worth noting that whatever you are going through this Valentine’s Day, it’s probably not as bad as what Saint Valentine went through on the day the holiday commemorates. Valentine, a Christian priest in the Roman empire, was beaten, stoned, and finally, decapitated on Feb. 14 roughly 1,700 years ago in Rome, according to hazy accounts that have been passed down through history.

Some versions of the legend say Valentine’s crime was performing marriages for young Christian men and women in an age that favored open relationships. Young marriage was also frowned on because it was seen as making fighting men less tough. Valentine may also have attempted to convert people, and even the then-emperor Claudius II, to Christianity. One version of his story says that Valentine healed his jailor’s daughter of blindness when he was in prison awaiting execution (in other versions, it’s the daughter of a judge.) Before being taken out to die, he wrote the girl a note signed “your Valentine.”
Romantic? Not so much.

The history around the man himself is incomplete, comprising more than one person—St. Valentine of Terni and St. Valentine of Rome—who may or may not have been the same. Even the date of his death is unclear—various versions say it took place in 269, 270, 273, or 280 AD. Pope Gelasius marked February 14th as a celebration in honor of St. Valentine’s martyrdom in 496 AD. By this point, Christianity had moved from subversive fringe group to the main religion of the Roman empire. Some historians believe that Valentine’s Day was instated in order to suppress the pagan ritual of Lupercalia, a fertility rite in which single young men and women were paired off in a type of sexual lottery.

Not all saints came to such a violent end, but violence and martyrdom—one route to sainthood—do rather go hand-in-hand, as a full list of martyred saints shows. According to Catholic Online, St. Valentine is patron saint of engaged couples, happy marriages, love, lovers, and young people, but also of plague, travelers, epilepsy, fainting, greetings—and bee keepers.

Original Articles appeared on Atlas Obscura and Quartz


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