Friday, 14 February 2014

The Feast of Saint Valentine

On 14th February, in the days of Emperor Claudius II, the priest Valentino was executed in Rome. Valentine was martyred and named a saint after his death.

Valentine's story starts in Rome under the rule of Claudius II, also known as “Claudius Gothicus”, who was involved in many unpopular and bloody campaigns. After the Emperor Alexander Severus was murdered by his own troops the Roman Empire fell into massive turmoil. The so called 'Crisis of the Third Century' (235–284 AD) witnessed the Empire splitting into three competing states and facing near collapse.

It was essential Claudius maintained a strong army but was having difficulty recruiting new soldiers to his military forces. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families. To solve this problem, Claudius banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. The priest Valentine, realising the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret.

This is evidenced by the discovery of the bodies of two young lovers in a perfectly preserved sarcophagus, the inscription revealing the marriage of Sabino, a pagan Roman soldier and Serapia, a Christian girl from Terni, by Saint Valentine in defiance of the emperor which has become the centrepiece of the legend of Saint Valentine of Terni.

Basilica di San Valentino, Terni, Italy.
The Basilica was begun in the 17th century and completed in 1854.
Today couples from many places come to Terni every February 14 to take or renew their marriage vows.
When Valentine's actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Valentine was arrested and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death and beheaded. The priest's execution was carried out on 14th February, on or about the year 270.

Legends vary on how the martyr's name became connected with exchanging romantic messages, but it claimed that while in jail, Valentine left a farewell note for the jailer's daughter, who had become his friend, and signed it "From Your Valentine."

The first representation of Saint Valentine appeared in the 15th Century Nuremberg Chronicle, alongside the woodcut portrait of Valentine the text states that he was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Claudius II. Various dates are given for his martyrdom, 269 or 270.

In truth, the exact origins and identity of St. Valentine are unclear. He does not occur in the earliest list of Roman martyrs, compiled by the Chronographer of 354, a 4th Century illuminated manuscript also known as the Calendar of 354. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February." One was a priest in Rome, the second one was a bishop of Terni and the third St. Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of Africa.

Saint Valentine, left, Christ , centred, and Saint Zeno,
Mosaic from Chapel of S. Zeno, Basilica di San Prassede, Rome,
resting in an arch above the niche containing a piece of the Pillar of Flagellation.
The trail to this elusive saint leads to the Basilica di San Prassede, in Rome, where he is found in one of the few surviving Byzantine mosaics in Rome. The northernmost gate to the city, the Porta del Popolo, is the place where Saint Valentine was beheaded, the gate was later renamed the Porta Valentini to commemorate this moment. The flower crowned skull of St Valentine is exhibited in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome. The remains of the original Basilica di San Valentino are about a kilometre outside the gate, from which three entrances lead into the rock of the hill and the catacombs of Saint Valentine.

The date of his death may have become mingled with the Feast of Lupercalia, a pagan festival of love held around the same time. On these occasions, the names of young women were placed in a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed.

Remains of Basilica of San Valentino and Entrances to Catacombs of Saint Valentine
The Feast of St. Valentine was first established in 496 AD by Pope Gelasius I, who included Valentine among those "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God” thus bringing an end to the Feast of Lupercalia declaring that 14th February be celebrated as St Valentine's Day.

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