In Search of Saint Valentine

We delve deeper into this holiday of amour, to discover some surprising facts.

It’s that time of year again, when store windows lure us with candy hearts, boxes of chocolates and red roses. But have you ever wondered just who Saint Valentine is, and what he has to do with romantic love? If so, this blog post is for you.

The identity of Saint Valentine is nothing if not obscure. Hagiographers (who study the lives of saints) are not even sure he is one person. Indeed, several Valentines have been canonized by the Catholic church, and our modern notion of him may be a conflation of several people. One Valentine is believed to have been a priest martyred in the 3rd century AD for marrying couples despite an imperial decree forbidding unions at a time when the Empire desperately needed soldiers to go off to war. Jailed for presiding over these secret nuptials, Valentine allegedly fell in love with the Emperor’s daughter, and scripted a missive to her signed, Your Valentine. The world’s first Valentine’s card was born.

St Valentine: one man or many?

We need to go back even further to get at the roots of the modern St. Valentine’s Day. In pre-Christian Rome, the Lupercalia festival, held in mid-February, involved young men running around good and drunk—naked to boot—chasing young women with strips of animal hides. If you think that’s weird, brace yourself for what comes next. The men would try and strike the ladies with the hides, thus rendering them fertile. The couples would then pair off for the duration of the festival, and longer if the match was right. Did Christianity put its stamp on this strange pagan orgy by superseding it with the feast of Saint Valentine, who happened to be martyred in mid-February?

During the ancient Roman Lupercalia festival, young men chased young women with animal hides in an attempt to render them fertile.

Whatever the case may be, we went on a search for Saint Valentine in the places of Paris we know best…to very little avail. There are no representations of the saint(s) in any of the museums and galleries we scoured. But there is another figure who often gets place of pride on Saint Valentine’s Day, and there are more images of him than you can reasonably shake an arrow at: Cupid, the god of love. From Ancient Rome to Renaissance Italy, there he is with wings and the tools of his trade – quiver and bow – in statues and paintings galore. You’re likely to meet him on one of our Louvre tours, going about the day’s business of making people fall in love.

Cupid Reviving Psyche with a Kiss, by the Italian artist Canova, features on our Louvre tours.

If you get shot by one of Cupid’s arrows this Valentine’s Day, remember that a kiss is just a kiss. Unless of course we are talking about the Italian sculptor Canova, in which a kiss is no more and no less than the very source of life.

Happy Saint Valentine’s Day!