14th February: the day the world celebrates love. Whilst some look forward to all things red and heart-shaped on Valentine’s Day, some dread this commercialised holiday of love. Whether you love it or hate it, there’s no escaping the shops filled with Valentine’s cards, the florists with the single red roses or those adverts for expensive jewellery and chocolates.
The Rose, 2003 (oil on canvas), Myung-Bo Sim / Private Collection
Regardless of the money spent, Valentine’s Day is dedicated to the love birds of the world to show their affection for one another, but do you know why?
Love birds, love hearts, (mixed media on canvas), painting, Lubna Speitan / Private Collection
Who is Saint Valentine?
The history of Valentine’s Day is somewhat hazy, with many differing tales on the patron saint of love – the Catholic Church recognizes three different saint Valentine’s. Whilst the truth is not known, the stories all share similar troupes of love and heroism, making Valentine one of the most popular saints.
St. Valentine (painted glass), Hungarian School (19th century) / Private Collection / Archives Charmet
One of the known Valentine’s was a priest in third century Rome and his story appeals to the (secret) romantic in us all. At the time, Emperor Claudius II had decided to outlaw marriage for young men. His reasoning was that single men were more equipped to fight as soldiers compared to those with wives. The priest, Valentine, decided not to let the emperor’s new law get in the way of true love and performed these outlawed marriages in secret. He paid the ultimate price as the emperor, furious at this act of defiance sentenced him to death.
An alternative story of St Valentine suggests that he was killed because he helped Christians escape Roman prisons where they were often tortured. The two alternative stories merge with Valentine in prison waiting for his death sentence. With there, he fell in love with a girl who frequently visited him and sent the very first valentine’s greeting. Valentine wrote his love letter signed off as ‘From your Valentine’.
In 1537, England’s King Henry VII officially declared February 14th the holiday of St. Valentine’s Day. But it is a bit of a contentious topic as it’s not really known why. Whilst some believe the Catholic Church honoured Valentine by commemorating the anniversary of his death, others theorise that it is in February due to tactics on behalf of the Christian church. The Pagan celebration of Lupercalia is on 15th February. This is a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, and was wildly popular despite Christian’s being against the celebration. So it’s been argued that the date was selected to make this pagan celebration ‘Christian’.
Faunus, copy of an original by Praxiteles (c.370-330 BC) (marble) (b/w photo), Roman / Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy / Alinari
Who is Cupid?
In Roman mythology, Cupid, the son of Venus, is the god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection. His Greek counterpart is Eros, the young son of Aphrodite. He is usually portrayed as a small child with wings and a golden bow and arrow which he uses to strike the hearts of people so they fall in love.
Cupid (oil on canvas), Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842) / Regional Art Museum, Chernigov, Ukraine
As an emblem of love, Cupid began to appear on Valentine’s Day cards during the latter half of the 19th century.