February and all the “love” idiocy that comes with it are upon us once again. Being a very bad and extremely lapsed Catholic I had some vague memories of some Valentine who became a martyr by being beheaded, reason unknown, at least to me.
I recently hopped into the Museum’s store and was immediately attracted by the display table laden with an array of pink and red heart-shaped anything and, after a few minutes, I caught myself lovingly caressing a pink bar of soap for which I had no need whatsoever and which I ended up putting back for no other reason that my wallet wasn’t mercifully attached to my hip – the brief “encounter” got me thinking it was time I found out how it is that Hallmark, candy makers and florists got such a lucky break on February 14.
It turns out Valentine is actually the name of a multitude of Catholic saints whose deeds were unknown even to the Church. A celebration of Valentine was instituted in 496 most likely to replace a pagan Roman holiday by the fun name of Lupercalia, somehow related to fertility – as usual, the Catholic Church was already intent in taking the fun out of anything they laid their hands on. If there is one thing those Romans knew how to do, it was party.
For the first figurative representation of Valentine we have to jump to 1493 – it’s at this time that we learn through paintings that the saint we have so come to love was imprisoned by the feisty Romans for marrying Christian couples, a big no-no at the time. He was beaten and stoned to death – well, actually such methods didn’t do it and that is where the beheading of my memory comes into play.
The romantic meaning was attached to our Valentine during the High Middle Ages, thanks to Geoffrey Chaucer and the tradition of courtly love – some historians dispute this fact but I like to think the father of modern English is to thank for the thousands of copywriters who sit at their laptops concocting inane love messages. What I found hard to believe, but historically true, is that the custom of sending romantic notes, known as valentines, started in the 1800’s in Great Britain, of all unromantic places. It just goes to show that under all those buttoned up jackets and feelings, some Englishman somewhere had a passionate heart. Or maybe his name was Mr. Hallmark and saw a great business opportunity.