Every year on February 14, millions of people celebrate the world’s biggest lovefest with boxes of chocolates, candlelit meals, and notes of affection. But behind the rosy facade of Valentine’s Day, there is a mysterious — and creepy — story of a beheading and body parts scattered across Europe.
The Catholic martyr Saint Valentine was beheaded on that date in the 3rd century, allegedly for breaking a Roman ban on marriages. Now, in Dublin, a church claims to display the heart of Saint Valentine; in a basilica of Rome the supposed skull of him is exhibited; in a convent in Glasgow, it is said that we can see a gold box in which his skeleton is found; in a Prague basilica, his shoulder bone is an attraction. Even in Spain, in the Madrid church of San Antón, the supposed remains of Saint Valentine remain locked inside a glass compartment.
There is also Terni, supposedly the Italian city that is the birthplace of Valentine. There, his relics draw believers to the Basilica of San Valentino, the first version of which was supposedly built over his tomb. In all, a dozen Catholic churches in Europe are dedicated to claiming ownership of the remains of this celebrated saint.
It is unclear where his true physical relics are located. This lack of consensus underscores the deep mysteries that surround Valentine. His history is so murky that, despite being a recognized saint, in 1969 he was deleted from the General Roman Calendar (the liturgical almanac that marks the dates of the celebrations of the saints) due to the lack of reliable information on the life of him.
Who was Valentine?
His legend is probably a mixture of the lives of various Italian saints named Valentine, and it is likely that none of them really inspired the annual celebration of Valentine’s Day. Historical texts show that three saints named Valentini died on February 14 during the third century, but little is known about each of them, according to Lisa Bitel, a professor of religion and history at the University of Southern California (USA) and one of the leading experts on Valentine’s Day.
One of these Valentines perished in Africa. Another was a priest beheaded by the Roman Emperor Claudius II Gothicus. The other was a Bishop of Terni, near Rome in central Italy, who was also beheaded by Gothicus. Although, it seems unlikely that both Valentines were beheaded; most likely, this gruesome incident was a single legend that splintered, says Bitel. There is also no evidence that any of these saints performed acts that promoted romance. Instead, February 14 began as a religious holiday marking the execution of a Valentine.
The first mention of Valentine’s Day as a celebration of the passion was made, more than 1,000 years later, by the British author Geoffrey Chaucer, according to Henry Kelly, professor of history and theology at UCLA (United States). Author of Chaucer and the Cult of St. Valentine, Kelly claims that Chaucer’s writings furthered the tradition of lovers celebrating this annual holiday. He says that many colorful stories now associated with Valentine’s Day were “fictional.”
Given all this uncertainty, it is understandable that many European towns claim ownership of the remains of Valentine. Churches benefit greatly from any concrete link to a saint, explains Bitel. “The better known the saint, the more pilgrims flock to venerate him,” he says. “It was easy to rewrite the hagiography to include the saint’s presence in a particular place.”
Although it seems that not all can possess the remains of Saint Valentine, there is no known animosity between these churches, adds Bitel. And the Roman Catholic Church is silent on the matter.
“The Vatican doesn’t rule on bodies,” he says. “The Church leadership let the acquisition and use of relics continue without much regulation. It was bringing customers to churches, pilgrims to the city, and money to Church coffers. Theologians and others criticized early on the relic trade, beginning with [Saint] Augustine, if not earlier. People knew that relic dealers sold counterfeits. But people were also willing to believe that saints could provide relics in miraculous proportions so that many churches could claim that they had the body of a particular saint.
The Strange Case of Valentine’s Remains
Nowadays, however, Valentine’s remains have much less magnetism. In Rome, crowds of foreigners queue every day at the 6th-century Basilica of Santa Maria de Cosmedin. There, inside a golden box, is a skull decorated with a flower crown. However, those hordes of tourists have no interest in or knowledge of this Valentine’s relic, and instead come to stick their fingers inside an ancient, albeit renowned, manhole cover, called the Mouth of Truth.
“When we go there, my clients don’t ask to see Valentine’s body,” says veteran Rome tour guide Sara Verde. “They don’t even know that Valentine’s body is inside.”
This relic of the saint is also of little interest to most of the inhabitants of Rome, who are skeptical about its authenticity. “In Rome, we believe that this skull, which is still venerated by pilgrims, belonged to another Christian martyr named Valentin,” says Verde. “I have been to Terni to see the real body of Valentine.”
In Glasgow, on the other hand, some Scottish couples meet on February 14 with the remains of Valentine. The martyr’s bones arrived in this gritty port city in the late 1870s, according to Father George Smulski of Glasgow’s Duns Scotus Friary. They were donated by a wealthy French Catholic family and are now housed in an ornate reliquary behind glass at the entrance to the convent’s atrium.
“Every year on Valentine’s Day, visitors (mainly couples) visit the shrine,” says Smulski. “Some come to renew their wedding vows and, in one known case, to make a marriage proposal to their partner.”
To the west, across the choppy Irish Sea, Valentine has to compete for attention with an equally famous saint. One of Dublin’s main attractions is the majestic cathedral named after Ireland’s patron Saint Patrick, which overflows with visitors year-round.
Nearby, inside the more nondescript Whitefriar Street church, Valentine rests in relative anonymity. Beneath a large statue of the saint is a wooden chest containing his heart. In 1836, this sacred organ was brought here from Rome in “solemn procession”, according to a sign inside the church.
Dublin tour guide Alan Byrne, a history graduate (he did his thesis on the Catholic Church), says Valentine’s remains are well known among locals but absent from the city’s tourist trail. He says that Valentine’s Day is the only time the relics get many visitors. “People write love messages and leave them at the shrine,” says Byrne. “Newly engaged couples often have their rings blessed there on that day; there are even occasional proposals at the shrine.”
However, young Irish sweethearts are far more inclined to spend Valentine’s Day in Dublin’s photogenic venues that offer a superior backdrop for social media images. “Maybe Valentine needs an Instagram account to get more visitors to this church,” jokes Byrne.
There is some truth to that Irish humor. On February 14, people are more likely to post a Valentine emoji online than visit the purported heart (or skull, or shoulder) of the saint they’re celebrating.