A Brief Artistic History of Valentine’s Day to Impress Friends and Lovers
Passion for life is often spoken through the heart. This powerful organ beats an average of about 100,000 times in one day and about 35 million times in a year. During an average lifetime, the human heart will beat more than 2.5 billion times. If you give a tennis ball a good, hard squeeze, you’re using about the same amount of force your heart uses to pump blood out to the body. Even at rest, the muscles of the heart work hard—twice as hard as the leg muscles of a person sprinting.artes fine arts magazine
It’s any wonder the ancients believed the heart to be the seat of the soul. More than a metaphor, as it is today, the heart was thought to be the source of all emotion. Its tenacious rhythm was an audible reminder of our humanity throughout the centuries, when the workings of most other functions of the body were shrouded in myth and mystery. From the Latin word for heat (and later, the Italian, curo, comes our word courage. Even today, to be courageous is to lead with the heart, without regard for one’s safety or well-being. We reward the courageous on fields of battle with Purple Hearts; and in our own daily relationships during this time of year, with sweet heart-shaped rememberances.
St. Valentine’s Day began as a liturgical celebration of one or more early Christian saints named Valentinus. Saint Valentine earned martyrdom status after he was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians, who were persecuted under the Roman Empire. During his imprisonment, he is said to have healed the daughter of his jailer Asterius. Legend states that before his execution he wrote “from your Valentine” as a farewell to her.
The power of the heart to occurred as early as the 14th century. The day was first associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished. The first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love was written by Chaucer to honor the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. When they were married eight months later, they were each only 15 years old.
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
“For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”
~Geoffrey Chaucer (1382), in Parlement of Foules*
By the 15th century, it had evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards (known as “valentines”)
By the 16th and 17th century, the role of the heart as the seat of emotion moved from myth to metaphor, as scientific inquiry increasingly trumped orthodox theology’s grip on the inquiring minds of philosophers (pure science was not yet considered a serious pursuit). The heart as a symbolic target of captive love and affection was taken up by Rococo artists such as Girard, Saint-Ours, West and Eddy. As themes of courtly love moved from the castle to the town square—together with a trend to re-invigorate Greek and Roman cultural motifs during the Enlightenment, there was ample opportunity to portray mounds of naked flesh in equally-resplendent wooded glens or heavily-draped boudoirs through a re-appropriation of the ancient Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. Over time, Psyche, the too-beautiful goddess who secluded herself rather than commit, lost out to Cupid, as that cherubic, mischievous and somewhat-overfed winged enfant terrible we know today captured popular imagination. It was a case of successful, modern-day-style branding, with that easily-recognized little bow and quiver of arrows winning market share over Psyche’s complex narrative of unrequited love.
In 1797, as the Industrial Era took hold and printing methods usurped hand crafted expressions of affection, a British publisher issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, which contained scores of suggested sentimental verses for the young lover unable to compose his own. Printers had already begun producing a limited number of cards with verses and sketches, called “mechanical valentines,” and a reduction in postal rates in the next century ushered in the less personal but easier practice of mailing Valentines. That, in turn, made it possible for the first time to exchange cards anonymously, which is taken as the reason for the sudden appearance of racy verse in an era otherwise prudishly Victorian.
Paper Valentines became so popular in England in the early 19th century that they were assembled in factories. Fancy Valentines were made with real lace and ribbons, with paper lace introduced in the mid-19th century. The reinvention of Saint Valentine’s Day in the 1840s has been traced by Leigh Eric Schmidt. As a writer in Graham’s American Monthly observed in 1849, “Saint Valentine’s Day… is becoming, nay it has become, a national holyday.” In the United States, the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper lace were produced and sold as early as 1847.
While lace, ribbons, demurring figures and sometimes suggestive prose dominated the card industry in the 19th century, the conventional symbol of the red heart has become the ubiquitous symbol of our contemporary Valentine’s Day. Some etiologists suggest that the heart is a stylized version of an engorged, female posterior, earning a PG rating as holiday symbols go. But, for the most part, the long history of Valentine’s Day, as a liturgical celebration, remembering the sacrifice of Valentius; to a vaguely-disguised fertility rituals lent credence by the courtly poets of the early Renaissance; to pictorial representations of ribald romps through the forests by the Romantic painters of France, to a highly ritualized opportunity to wear one’s passion on your sleeve in an otherwise emotionally-repressed Victorian England; to the benign celebration it has become today, Valentine’s Day is still a socially-sanctioned timeout from the daily grind. It is a chance to imagine, as did the Greeks, that the heart still remains the seat of all emotions. –RF