Blog post

Who was Saint Valentine?

Explore the myths and reality of this famous figure

Douglas McCarthy (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Valentine's Day is celebrated on 14 February every year, when people show affection for others by sending flowers, cards or chocolates with messages of love. But who was Saint Valentine? Today we explore the myths and reality of this famous figure.

Saint Valentine was a 3rd century Christian martyr, officially recognised by the Roman Catholic Church, whose feast day is 14 February. However, we know litte for certain about his life. Way back in 496, Pope Gelasius I described Valentine’s life and acts as “being known only to God.”

Valentine’s identity is uncertain. Some accounts say that Valentine was a physician and temple priest who ministered to Christians. Others identify him as the Bishop of Interamna (Terni in modern Italy), or a Christian martyr who died in north Africa. Might these overlapping accounts be referring to the same person? We can’t be sure.

It seems likely that Valentine was imprisoned in Rome for aiding persecuted Christians and sentenced to death by Emperor Claudius. Although the year of his execution is uncertain (perhaps 269, 270, 273 or 280), Valentine’s body was interred on 14 February in a Christian cemetery on Rome’s Via Flaminia. Since 496, 14 February has been observed as the Feast of Saint Valentine (Valentine’s Day).

Possibly the first ever depiction of Saint Valentine – a detail from page 122r of Hartmann Schedel’s Liber Chronicarum, 1493, (‘Nuremburg Chronicle’). Cambridge University Library, CC BY-NC 3.0

Relics of Saint Valentine can be found all over Europe: a flower-crowned skull in Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria, a vessel of Valentine's blood in Dublin’s Whitefriar Street Church, and assorted other relics in the Czech Republic, Poland, Malta, France and Scotland.

Valentine is the patron saint of lovers, beekeepers and epileptics. In the image below, we see him blessing an epilectic man who has fallen at his feet. Epilepsy has been known as the "falling sickness" and Valentine's patronage of epileptics may be due to the similarity between his name and the German word for “fall” (epilepsy is known as fallende Sucht or Fallsucht in German).

Saint Valentine blessing an epileptic. Wellcome Collection, CC BY

In this fragment of a book illustration, Saint Valentine is portrayed as a bishop with a monstrance, makes a blessing gesture of healing over a stricken man lying on his back.

Saint Valentine as a Bishop, 1509-1549, after Lucas Cranach.
Rijksmuseum, Public Domain

In the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that birds paired as couples in February, and Saint Valentine’s association with love may have begun with the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer’s 1375 poem Parlement of Foules links St. Valentine’s feast day of 14 February with the tradition of courtly love:

‘For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day,

Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.’

Although the life of Saint Valentine may be obscure to us now, the legacy of this famous saint lives on today.

Read more about Valentine’s Day on the Europeana Collections blog

By Douglas McCarthy, Europeana Foundation

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