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From the Heart: Valentine’s Day at a Glance

Romance is in the air this month, as lovers around the world anticipate the calendar’s most amorous date, February 14.
Heart-shaped valentines card, 1850-1899. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Morrison H. Heckscher, 1989 (1989.1154)

Heart-shaped valentines card, 1850-1899. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Morrison H. Heckscher, 1989 (1989.1154)

Those who think that the holiday is a modern-day construction might be surprised to learn that Valentine’s Day has roots that go as far back as ancient Rome.

The exact identity of Saint Valentine, for whom the holiday is named, is something of a mystery, with the most popular candidate believed to be a third-century Roman priest. This Valentine (or Valentinus) performed secret marriages in defiance of Claudius II, who decreed that his soldiers could not marry. The priest paid dearly for his disobedience and was executed on February 14, AD 269 or 270. It has been suggested that the phrase “From your Valentine” originated with him, as he was said to have sent a note bearing this inscription to the jailer’s daughter before his death.

Credit for the first written valentine is commonly given to Charles, Duke of Orléans. Charles, who was captured by the English following the Battle of Agincourt, wrote a valentine to his wife in 1415 while he was imprisoned. The idea took off and the giving of valentines became a common practice by the sixteenth century. As the popularity of handmade valentines increased, so did their beauty, as seen on a number of fine examples in the Met’s collection. The first commercial valentines were introduced in the 1840s by American Esther Howland and became wildly successful.

The giving of gifts eventually became associated with the holiday as well, and by the seventeenth century, items such as jewelry, gloves, garters, and silk stockings–most of which are mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his now-famous diary–were given as presents in England. The earliest gifts of flowers for Valentine’s Day are thought to date to the early eighteenth century when Sweden’s Charles II brought the “language of flowers” to Europe from Persia. Along with candy, flowers and jewelry continue to be popular gifts today.

Red Heart Pendant

Red Heart Pendant

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