Skeleton(s) of the Week, April 22: St. Valentine

SKELETON(S) OF THE WEEK, APRIL 22: ST. VALENTINE


Or rather, Saints Valentine. The above photo, of St. Valentine in Hiltensweiler, Germany, is not really St. Valentine. Neither is the remarkable skeleton below, with a waxen head and piscine lips, from Bad Schussenried, Germany, even though he bears the same name.


In fact, there are an awful lot of St. Valentines. Eleven are recognized by the Catholic Church, and if we allow for variants on the name, such as the Latinized St. Valentinus, there are even more–such as the stunning version below, from Waldsassen, Germany.


This seems like it might have the potential to get confusing, and indeed it certainly did for many centuries, as couples would turn up on February 14 at numerous churches throughout Europe, under the impression that they were appearing before the patron saint of lovers, so that he could bless their union. The excavators who searched the Roman Catacombs for potential relics are to blame for this mess. They needed to provide names for remains that were presumed to be sacred, and in cases where the identity was indeterminate, they were obliged to name them. Any relic named St. Valentine was guaranteed to be a hit in parish churches, so they just kept cranking them out. Some of them are revered even to this day–such as the St. Valentine below, in Krumbach, Germany, who even in the modern era has lovers show up on February 14 asking for his blessing, as a musical score in his honor is played. Even though . . . no, he is not actually St. Valentine, either.


Since St. Valentine can’t logically have skeletons scattered across the continent, the question begs: which one is real? According to tradition, the real skeleton of St. Valentine is not on view. It is encased in the reliquary casket pictured below, in Terni, Italy.


Even that might not be correct, however. St. Valentine was supposedly an early Christian martyr, who died somewhere on the Via Flaminia north of Rome, sometime in the third century. But he is not actually listed in the hagiographies and martyrologies from that era, and his name is only put forth around the year 500, over two centuries afterward. It was said that he was from Terni, and it was to Terni where the body was eventually returned to be venerated. The name Valentine, however, comes from the Latin Valens, meaning powerful, and variants on it were extremely popular during the Roman era. Popular enough that when the name Valentine finally started to be identified as that of a known martyr, the Valentine from Terni was only one of several to be put forth. The confusion over the identity and history of St. Valentine is such that, while his holiday is one of the most prominent of all saints, his liturgical celebration was quietly removed from the official Catholic calendar in 1969–it’s no longer an official celebration, because even the Church itself isn’t quite sure where he is, or who he is.

The book Heavenly Bodies by Paul Koudounaris, a history of skeletons taken from the Roman Catacombs, will be released Fall 2013 by Thames and Hudson. Images from the book will be featured in a gallery show at La Luz de Jesus in Los Angeles, and the book is available for pre-order via

book cover

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