Saint Valentine: Man and Legend

by February 14, 2012 at 2:00 pm 2,378 0

St.Wolfgang am Stein Kirche - Hochaltar 7 Valentin

Saint Wolfgang church, High Altar: Statue of Saint Valentine of Raetia (1644) by Johann Worath. (Wiki Commons)

From Candida Mannozzi. She writes a biweekly column for Bordertan, “Borderstan Candids.” You can reach her at [email protected].

As we celebrate Valentine’s Day, I decided to find out more about the original man — later saint — Valentine (Valentino), why or how he became associated with love and romance, and why specifically on the 14th of February.

Valentine was a successful early man of the Church, elected Bishop of the Italian city of Terni in 197. He was famous for his miracles (among them curing a Roman orator’s gravely ill son), his numerous acts of charity, humility, and the conversion of many to Christianity (including that same Roman orator and his entire family).

Valentine lost his head, literally: he was decapitated in Rome on February 14, 273. His dismembered body was then returned to Terni, about 100 kilometers Northeast of Rome, and buried there.

In the 4th Century, the city of Terni erected a basilica dedicated to Valentine over his supposed tomb site, in order to have a place to remember the Saint, and because the Longobard king who ruled over the region at the time believed Valentine’s remains had healing powers, just as when he was alive.

Then, 200 years later, the Basilica was in a state of abject disrepair, having (like the rest of its region) suffered years of sacks and raids. In 1605, the then Bishop of Terni obtained permission from Pope Paul V to search for the remains of the Saint, but they turned up in a different location in the city.

So, the community decided to rebuild their Basilica dedicated to Valentine in the exact spot where he had first been buried, believing that ongoing worship of him would be significant only if it radiated from the original resting place of the Saint.

The legend of Saint Valentine grew and changed over the centuries. Most importantly, given the date of his martyrdom at the tail end of winter and the already well-established Roman festivities celebrating the gods of fertility, fecundity and rebirth on February 15, the Saint began to be associated and co-celebrated with those pagan deities. Over time, these celebrations became too bawdy and licentious even for a Roman Emperor, so Augustus forbade them, until they were completely suppressed in 494.

As it was known to do, the Church gradually took over those pagan rituals, moving them by just one day to the 14th of February, to coincide with the date of Saint Valentine’s martyrdom. The Church further began to rework the Roman pagan celebrations of fertility by instead starting legends claiming that Saint Valentine had the power to protect couples intending to marry and could even bless their union with children; or that the Saint loved roses and similarly perfumed flowers, which (they claimed) he had been known to give to couples in love, as his way of wishing them a happy union.

So, centuries before Hallmark, Interflora, Godiva chocolates or a movie industry pushing romances, there were others who spread rather interesting messages about the man Valentine in hopes of a particular gain.

Borderstan, all of this history notwithstanding, let me wish each of you a joyful celebration of love, spring, rebirth, fertility, end-of-winter, courage, lust, hope … whatever you may choose to venerate on February 14!

Sources: and


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