Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Saint of Romance?

Jeanne de Montbaston, Saint Valentine of Terni
From the Lives of the Saints
French (Paris), c. 1325-1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 183, fol. 210r

Each year, Christmas decorations and Christmas cards have barely been discounted when a new series of cards and decorative items begin to appear in stores. Store windows suddenly seem to feature nothing but items in reds and pinks. Red seems to be everywhere – on candy shelves, cards, wrapping paper, in florist’s windows, on textiles, you name it. So, we know that Valentine’s Day is upon us. Most people have a dim idea that somewhere back in history there was a Saint Valentine and that he had something to do with love. But what and when?

To begin with Valentine is a Roman name (Valentinus) and Valentine is a Roman saint, or at least one of the Valentines from the early Christian centuries about whom we have some sketchy information was described as a Roman priest. Another, contemporary Valentine was the bishop of what is now the city of Terni in Umbria. Since these two Valentines seem to have been martyred in Rome within the same timeframe and are commemorated on the same day, February 14, and both were reported to be buried off the Via Flaminia it is just possible that they may be one and the same person. A third Valentine was martyred in North Africa and is definitely a different person.1
Queen Mary Master, The Martyrdom of Saint Valentine
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 243r

Beyond those bare statements we have no real information, merely legends. According to one legend, Valentine (whether the priest or the bishop) was arrested during a persecution under the Emperor Claudius II Gothicus (268-270), severely beaten and then beheaded.2

The Martyrdom of Saint Valentine
From the Speculum historiale of Vincentius Bellovacensis
French (Paris), c. 1335
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 5080, fol. 197r

Pope Julius I (337-352) constructed the basilica of San Valentino in the vicinity of the present day Piazza del Popolo. (This well-known piazza is the site of the original Porta Flaminiana, where the Via Flaminia entered the walls of Rome and became the Via Lata, the present day Via del Corso).3 This church was one of those frequently included among the churches visited by medieval pilgrims to Rome. 4

Jan van Haelbeck, The Martyrdoms of Saints Marius and His Wife Martha and Their Sons, of Saint Cyprianus and of Saint Valentine
From Ecclesiae Militantis Triumphi, plate 19
Flemish, c. 1600-1620
London, Trustees of the British Museum

Valentine’s association with romantic love comes from later, embroidered, tales of his martyrdom and the date of his feast day. According to some stories Valentine was accused of performing Christian marriages during a period of persecution when the practice of Christianity was considered a crime. This, combined with a later, medieval development cemented his association with romantic love.

The medieval development is recorded in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules (Parliament of Birds).

For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;5

This is in recognition of the observation that it is in the middle of February, around Valentine’s feast day of February 14th, that birds begin their courtship in preparation for the new generation. (As a neophyte birdwatcher, I can attest that birds haven’t changed and that this is still true today. Here in Manhattan a couple of our resident hawks whose partners died during the year (Washington Square and Riverside Park nests) have paired up with new mates, the famous Fifth Avenue hawk pair of Palemale and Lima* are sprucing up their nest and the ducks are cavorting on the lakes doing their amusing courtship dances.)

Visually, Saint Valentine has mostly retained his original significance as a martyr. Throughout the Middle Ages he was depicted either as the bishop or as the martyr.

Hans Burgkmair, Saints Valentine, Stephen and Maximilian, Patron Saints of Passau
German, c. 1503-1505
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The martyrdom scenes sometimes involved discussions with the Emperor Claudius II, as described in the Golden Legend. 6

Richard de Montbason, The Martyrdom of Saint Valentine
From the Legenda aurea by Jacobus de Voargine
French (Paris), 1348
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 241, fol. 69r
In the late sixteenth century the artist Jacopo Bassano painted an altarpiece of Saint Valentine Baptizing Saint Lucilla, a subject for which I have been unable to find any literary source.
Jacopo Bassano, Saint Valentine Baptising Saint Lucilla
Italian, c.1575
Bassano del Grappa, Museo Civico

I could not find anything in the visual record that appears to refer to Valentine as the saint of romance. We appear to owe this identification entirely to Chaucer’s connection of courting birds with the date of February 14th. Nevertheless, this is the identification that has stuck and that has entered the modern secular world.

Saint Valentine
Wood carving, German, ca. 1500
Oppenheim, Parish Church of
Saint Bartholemew
However, one reference to the real Valentine has also entered that world – the color red. Red is the color of the heart, to be sure, but its main identification is as the color of blood and, hence, the color of martyrdom. That is why priests wear red vestments when saying Mass on the feast days of martyrs. It is also why the cardinals of the Catholic Church “receive the red hat” and why cardinals and the Pope himself wear red as part of their clothing.

So, when you buy those red roses or that red box of chocolates for your beloved, remember that you are also commemorating the blood shed by a martyr over 1,700 years ago. Happy Saint Valentine’s Day!

© M. Duffy, 2012

Traveling home up Madison Avenue on Valentine's Day, following an afternoon spent at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, I couldn't help but notice that, even before the end of the day, many store windows had already switched the dominant color of their displays from red to green -- the color associated with Saint Patrick's Day.  Another day, another color, another saint, another story. 

*  Since this was originally published Lima has died.  Palemale's most recent partner is known as Octavia as she is his eighth mate!  This is distressing, as red-tailed hawks are one of those bird species that mate for life.

1. Thurston, Herbert. "Saint Valentine." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 15., New York, Robert Appleton Company, 1912. Can be accessed at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15254a.htm.

2. Butler, Rev. Alban, Lives of the Saints, New York, Benziger Brothers, 1894, pp. 73-74.

3. Krautheimer, Richard. Rome, Profile of a City, 312-1308, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 54.

4. Birch, Debra J. Pilgrimage to Rome in the Middle Ages, Rochester, Boydell and Brewer, Inc. 1998, p. 94.

5. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Parliament of Foules, lines 309-311 at: http://omacl.org/Parliament/. See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parlement_of_Foules

6. The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. First Edition Published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, Edited by F.S. Ellis, Temple Classics, 1900 (Reprinted 1922, 1931.), Vol. III at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume3.asp#Valentine. For Claudius Gothicus see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudius_Gothicus

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