A couple of years back, wandering the streets of Rome, I pushed into the darkness of Santa Maria di Cosmedin. Among many oddities and wonders, I came upon this altar, hung with flowers, which displays the relics of the martyred St Valentine. There was a church built to Valentine on the Flaminian Way in Rome in the middle of the fourth century. And that is more or less the only reliable thing known of him – for who knows what the provenance of this relic is? It doesn’t make the guidebooks.
There is nothing in the legend of this martyr to connect this skull with the hearts on the Valentine cards that will be sent on Friday 14th February. It may simply have been an unsuccessful effort by the Church to overlay an old pagan fertility custom, based on the pairing of birds and the undoubted climactic quirk that at just about this time of the year, in England at least, there are usually a couple of mild, bright days promising spring before February clamps down again. Yet offerings and prayers were laid out on his altar, perhaps marking a martyrdom of unrequited love.