St. Valentine’s Skull

A skull resides in a glass reliquary in the Basilica of Santa Maria, a small church in Rome, surrounded by flowers. Lettering painted across the forehead identify the owner as the patron saint of lovers, St. Valentine.

The truth behind whose skull this is, however, is complicated. It is a bit of a grey area, since there was more than one Catholic saint known as Saint Valentine. Then there is the approximately 1500 years between those martyr’s deaths and the enthusiastic distribution and labeling of bodies in the Victorian era. Finally, and most troubling, there is the fact that no less than ten places claim to house the relics all around the world.

Little is known of the real man behind the myth. What is known is that at least two men by the name of Valentine (Valentinus) were identified in Italy and died in the late 3rd century. They were buried along Via Flaminia. As a saint, Valentine first gained notoriety in 496 when Pope Gelasius I made February 14, originally part of the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a feast day dedicated to St. Valentine. The stories of the different men seem to have merged into one over time, with most of the mythology about Valentine being a patron of lovers, helping early Christian couples to marry in secret.

The church itself is very old, standing on the site of an ancient Roman temple dating to the second century BC. Most of what is seen today dates to the 8th and 12th centuries, including the crypt located beneath the altar.

The skull can be found in the side altar on the left side of the church. While you are at the Basilica of Santa Maria, stop by the portico to visit with the famous Bocca della Verità (mouth of truth), made famous in the Audrey Hepburn 1953 movie “Roman Holiday.”

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