For most people, the visual experience of and leading up to Valentine’s Day consists of a bombardment of the senses with hearts, Cupids and putti (winged babies), chocolates, and roses — all in a palette of pastel reds and pinks. Love is in the air, and it gets plastered on gift cards, kitschy tchotchkes, and, most recently, mobile phone applications.
But there’s another, comparatively obscure pictorial narrative surrounding Valentine’s Day and its patron saint, which has its own iconography and stylization. St. Valentine, one or a composite of several third-century figures, is shrouded in mystery. Artists have been depicted him (or them) in a variety of different manners, from an old man with a long white beard to an innocent martyr-to-be.
With his curly hair and flowing beard, the saint—identified by the inscription “S. Valentyn”—who appears in the medieval manuscript South English Legendary , a copy of which is at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, could double as the pirate Blackbeard. St. Valentine carries a red book, which one would assume to be a religious work, and he wears a large pink hat and a white robe.
The St. Valentine who is depicted in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves (c. 1440 ), on the other hand, is beardless and his hair is arranged in a tonsure, the semi-shaven manner of monks. This saint is dressed more smartly than the pirate lookalike, and he is haloed. He too holds a book (this time a blue one) in one hand, and the other rests on a sword—the symbol of his martyrdom, beheading. Beneath the illustration, two dragonflies suspended among a border of red and purple flowers, eat an insect, perhaps a reference to his role as patron saint of beekeepers.
The saint appears at his worst in an etching by Jacques Callot in his 17th century Calendar of Saints. In the calendar, St. Valentine, who is depicted alongside saints Eulalia, Fusca, Maura, and Anthony, tries in vain to hold himself up as two men beat him with clubs. The saint, with his unkempt beard and burly robe, could be mistaken for a vagabond if not for his halo. An old man, the saint’s expression is ambiguous; he is either looking back in terror at his assailants, or he has already blocked out his desperate situation as he looks heavenward in prayer.
St. Valentine is anything but a decrepit old man in the 15th-century Three Saints, and Madonna and Child with Saints, which is attributed to the Veronese school. Here, the saint wears a papal hat and an elaborate robe, and he carries a curly staff called a crosier. A similarly costumed St. Valentine appears in an anonymous book illustration at the British Museum, and another is represented in Lucas Cranach’s St. Valentine with a Donor (c. 1502) —as well as in a later work by the German master. Cranach’s St. Valentine appears to have a pair of lovers incorporated into the design of his crown, and this St. Valentine is rendered in a more specific and almost cartoony manner. With a striped suit and a Tommy gun, Cranach’s St. Valentine would fit right in on a Dick Tracy set.
Other representations of the saint, such as in a medieval astrological and ecclesiastical calendar, are much more generic, and some depict a young St. Valentine, whose gender is ambiguous. A 15th century woodcut from The Illustrated Bartsch shows a long-haired St. Valentine, who looks very feminine, about to be beheaded. This tradition offers a younger, less experienced patron saint of love, which obviously has a very different perspective from the mature, older man. The duplicity of the saint’s gender makes him a more accessible inspiration for lovers of every sort.
Nothing could be further from the Hallmark commodification of St. Valentine than the saint’s connection to epilepsy victims, in addition to being the patron saint of lovers, marriage, and beekeepers. Seizures are logical comparisons to falling head over heels in love, but they’re still not the most unexpected aspect of the saint that surface in an examination of art historical traditions of St. Valentine.
Like many of his saintly peers, St. Valentine has been preserved and adorned in a variety of objects that are purported to be authentic relics. A 14th-century reliquary arm of St. Valentine in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum is a silver and sapphire container—presumably for a portion of the saint’s arm—which is nearly 22 inches long and features a “window” protected by a retractable gate. Another St. Valentine relic at the British Museum—this one in the form of a cross—also is supposed to contain part of the elusive saint, as well as of saints Ambrose, Lawrence, Catherine of Siena, Sebastian, Margaret, Valentine, Fulgentius, Peter, and the Virgin Mary.
Perhaps it makes for a happier celebration of St. Valentine’s day to focus on the hearts and the chocolates, rather than the epilepsy and the reliquaries, but the art historical tradition surely informs the contours of the holiday, even if they’ve been replaced and sanitized. And, the latter certainly offers new meaning to the notion of loving someone to pieces.
Menachem Wecker is a freelance writer on religion and art based in Chicago.