Each year on February 14, millions of people celebrate the world’s largest festival of love with boxes of chocolates, candlelit meals, and notes of affection. But behind the rosy facade of Valentine’s Day is a mysterious—and grisly—tale of a beheading and body parts scattered across Europe.
The Catholic martyr St. Valentine was beheaded on that date in the third century, supposedly for breaking a Roman ban on performing marriages. Now in Dublin a church claims to exhibit St. Valentine’s heart; in a Rome basilica his supposed skull is displayed; in a Glasgow friary his skeleton sits in a golden box; in a Prague basilica his shoulder bone is an attraction; and in a Madrid church his remains are encased in glass.
Then there’s Terni, reputedly Valentine’s Italian hometown. There his relics draw believers to the Basilica di San Valentino, the earliest version of which was supposedly built over his tomb. All in all, a dozen Catholic churches in Europe trade heavily on their claimed ownership of the remains of this celebrity saint.
Where his true physical relics lay is unclear. This lack of consensus underscores the deep mysteries surrounding Valentine. His tale is so murky that, despite being a recognized saint, in 1969 he was erased from the General Roman Calendar—the liturgical almanac that marks the dates of saint celebrations—due to the paucity of reliable information about his life.
Who was St. Valentine?
His legend is probably a mélange of the lives of several Italian holy men named Valentine and likely none of them actually inspired the annual lovers’ celebration. Historic texts show three saints named Valentini died on February 14 during the third century, with little known about each, according to Lisa Bitel, a professor of religion and history at the University of Southern California and one of the world’s leading experts on St. Valentine.
One of these Valentines perished in Africa. Another was a priest beheaded by Roman Emperor Gothicus. The other was a bishop of Terni, near Rome in central Italy, who also was decapitated by Gothicus. It seems unlikely both of those Valentines were beheaded; more probable is that this gruesome incident was a single legend which became splintered, Bitel says. There also is no evidence that any of these saints performed acts that promoted romance. Instead, February 14 began as a religious feast marking the execution of a St. Valentine.
The first mention of Valentine’s Day as a celebration of passion was made more than a thousand years later by British author Geoffrey Chaucer, according to Henry Kelly, a professor in history and theology at UCLA. The author of Chaucer and the Cult of St. Valentine, Kelly says Chaucer’s writing instigated the tradition of lovers marking this annual feast. He says many colorful stories now linked to St. Valentine were “fictitious.”
Given all this uncertainty, it is understandable many European locations claim ownership of Valentine’s remains. Churches benefit greatly from any concrete link to a saint, Bitel explains. “The better known the saint, the more pilgrims come to venerate him or her,” she says. “It was easy to rewrite the hagiography to include the saint’s presence in a particular place.”
Although it seems they cannot all possess Valentine’s remains, there’s no known competition or animosity between these churches, Bitel adds. And the Roman Catholic Church is mute on the matter.
“The Vatican doesn’t take a position on bodies,” she says. “The church leadership pretty much let the acquisition and use of relics go on without much regulation. It brought customers into churches, pilgrims to town, and money into church coffers. Theologians and others were critical from the start about the trade in relics, beginning with [Saint] Augustine, if not before. People knew relic traders sold fakes. But people also were willing to believe saints could provide relics in miraculous proportions, so that many churches could claim to have a particular saint’s body.”
The odd case of Valentine’s remains
Nowadays, however, St. Valentine’s remains have far less magnetism. In Rome, crowds of foreigners queue each day at the sixth-century Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin. There, inside a gilded box, is a skull decorated with a crown of flowers. Yet those tourist hordes have either no interest or no knowledge of this relic of St. Valentine and instead come here to shove their fingers inside an old, if renowned, sewer cover, called the Mouth of Truth.
“When we go there, my clients don’t ask to see the body of St. Valentine’s,” says veteran Rome tour guide Sara Verde. “They don’t even know the body of St. Valentine is inside.”
This saint relic also holds little interest for most residents of Rome, who are skeptical about its authenticity. “In Rome we believe this skull, which is still venerated by pilgrims, belonged to a different Christian martyr called Valentine,” Verde says. “I have been to Terni to see the real body of St. Valentine.”
In Glasgow, by comparison, some Scottish couples do make February 14 appointments with Valentine’s remains. The martyr’s bones arrived in this gritty port city in the late 1870s, according to Father George Smulski, from Glasgow’s Duns Scotus Friary. They were donated by a wealthy French Catholic family and now sit in an ornate reliquary behind glass in the friary’s atrium entrance.
“Each year on Valentine’s Day, visitors—mainly couples—will visit the shrine,” Smulski says. “Some come to renew their wedding vows and, in one known instance, to make a proposal of marriage to his intended.”
To the west, across the rough Irish sea, Valentine has to compete for attention with an equally famous saint. One of Dublin’s key attractions is the majestic cathedral named after Ireland’s patron, Saint Patrick, which brims with visitors year-round.
Nearby, inside the more nondescript Whitefriar Street Church, St. Valentine rests in comparative anonymity. Beneath a large statue of the saint lies a wooden chest containing his heart. In 1836 this holy organ was brought here from Rome in “solemn procession,” according to a sign inside the church.
Dublin tour guide Alan Byrne, who has a degree in history and 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 Valentine’s Day is the only time the relics receive many visitors. “People write messages of love and leave them on the shrine,” Byrne says. “Newly engaged couples often have their rings blessed there on the day; there are even occasional proposals at the shrine.”
Nevertheless, young Irish lovers are far more inclined to spend Valentine’s Day at photogenic spots in Dublin that offer superior backdrops for social media images. “Maybe St. Valentine needs an Instagram account to attract more visitors to this church,” Byrne jokes.
That Irish humor holds some truth. On February 14, people are more likely to post a valentine emoji online than visit the supposed heart—or skull or shoulder—of the holy man they’re celebrating.