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Need to Know - Saint Valentine

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

Facial reconstruction of our man Valentine

A story of massacres and certainly no bed of roses, but how did a 3rd-century priest in Rome become the patron saint of flower sellers and the bane of all western men?

Valentine! He must have been some silver-tongued Lothario surely?

I am not sure many Lothario’s were made a saint, it should come as no surprise to you that Valentine was a priest.

This story is going to end in a brutal murder, isn’t it?

Being murdered for your faith is one of the big tick boxes on the 'being made a saint' list, I think.

So was he some kind of relationship councillor that gave some bad advice and paid the ultimate price?

Well, to quote Pope Gelasius I, who established the feast of St. Valentine in 496, Valentinus should be among those “…whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God….”

Wait a moment, that does kind of suggest that we don’t know anything about him! How on Earth did he become a Saint?

From what we can know he was a priest in 3rd century Rome who ministered to persecuted Christians and was martyred. The relics were eventually distributed across various locations in Rome and some found their way to Dublin where they can still be found today, often the subject of pilgrimage for those seeking love.

Yeah, one can easily see how he became the patron saint of Lurve….obviously.

You would think there would be some clear delineation somewhere to explain why his feast day is connected to love, but alas, the historical cupboard is scant, and it seems the festival is subject to heated academic debate. But the story goes that Valentine was under house arrest and was discussing faith with Judge Asterius. The Judge challenged the Saint to restore the sight of his blind adopted daughter. She was instantly cured when he laid his hands on her eyes and the Judge converted to Christianity, released the Christians he had under his authority and freed Valentine. The Saint continued to evangelize and was taken to answer to the Emperor himself. When Valentine attempted to convince the Emperor to convert he was ordered to be clubbed to death and beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate.

I'm still waiting for the love connection?

Ah, well, an apparent embellishment to the tale includes Valentine writing a note to Asterius’s daughter prior to execution, signed “from your Valentine”, which is one of the more poetic explanations for the modern rituals of February 14th.

Oh, that kind of makes sense…

It had been suggested that the lack of information about the man meant the festival was an opportunistic attempt to usurp a pagan holiday. Others have suggested the connection to romantic love emerges out of England and the writings of Chaucer. A further theory presented is that middle-aged belief was that birds paired in mid-February….the short answer is we really don’t know.

But we know he was martyred on February 14th…..?

Funnily enough, we have evidence that suggests there were three Valentines connected to February 14th….

A cryptic tryptic?

That doesn’t even make any sense…

A tryptic being an altar painting in three panels, cryptic being difficult to understand…

Where was I? Yes, three Valentines…

Sounds like my February 14th 2002….

Really not helping….look, there is a Roman priest and the Bishop of Interamna (Terni in Italy) both buried on the Via Flaminia outside Rome and a third who suffered martyrdom on the same day in the Roman provinces of Africa. It has often been opined that the first two individuals were actually the same person, in the Catholic Church official list of recognized saints, February 14th gives only one Saint Valentine who died on the Via Flaminia. In the middle ages it seems the story was amended to suggest Valentine was punished for secretly marrying Christian couples when it was illegal to assist Christians.

I can see how the romantic connection developed over time now

Yeah, I think there was a degree of retrofitting the festival onto the man. It was later said that he married Christian couples to assist the men in avoiding the call to arms, which put him on a collision course with the Emperor. It was said that in order to remind these men of their vows and the love God had for them, he would cut heart shapes from parchment to give the men.

That sounds like a greetings card marketing tale….

Doesn’t it just. Other embellishments talk about people throwing flowers into his cell as a symbol of their support for his message of love, either that or flower sellers also had a man on the inside….

If his last meal was a candlelit affair with a bitter waiter then it all comes together nicely.

Sadly no mention of that, or a two for one Chick Flick marathon, but, talking of poor customer service, there is a Spanish angle. Some of his remains are on public display in the Church of St. Anton in Madrid, where they have been since the 1700s after being gifted to King Carlos IV. Although his skull is kept on display in Rome, and in 2017 a team of experts in Brazil reconstructed his face using 3D mapping techniques.

Well, all in all, sounds like his February 14th was pretty rubbish, which would make him the patron saint of the singles that just want to get smashed and go clubbing….


Our article on surviving Valentines Day here

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